“We’ve got a first-tier campaign,” Rand Paul insists, but his polling numbers say otherwise. He’s not alone in that, and he might not be the only candidate that might get forced to the undercard debate in the upcoming Fox Business Channel event on January 11th. Or will they? Politico’s Hadas Gold reported on Tuesday that the network will tighten up the criteria to reduce the number of candidates on the main debate stage, but will it work?

The criteria for the next Republican debate could shrink the debate stage to just six candidates, potentially pushing John Kasich, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul out of the main event and into the undercard debate, POLITICO has learned.

According to debate criteria that were to be announced Tuesday, host Fox Business Network will consider both early-state and national poll results in deciding which candidates make the prime-time forum. That main debate will feature candidates who place in the top six nationally, based on an average of the five most recent national polls recognized by Fox News, or place within the top five based on an average of the five most recent Iowa or New Hampshire state polls recognized by the network.

The polls being considered must be released prior to 6 p.m. Eastern time on Monday, Jan. 11, and be conducted by major nationally and state recognized organizations that use standard methodological techniques, such as live interviewers and random digit-dial sampling techniques using both landlines and cellphones.

There’s no limit on the number of candidates on the main stage. But according to POLITICO calculations based on only the national polling available as of Tuesday, the prime-time debate stage would include Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Chris Christie. The early state polling wouldn’t change the lineup as of Tuesday, according to POLITICO calculations of Iowa and New Hampshire polls.

Two of the six listed should be more grateful that FBN has switched from the percentage basis used in previous debates. To get to six, the bar would have to be set rather low.  In the nine polls listed by RCP, only three of them give Bush 5% or more — and one of them is PPP, which doesn’t use live interviewers at all. Assuming that the rest of these polls would qualify for FBN’s calculations, Bush is averaging 3.5%. Even if FBN just takes the major media polls into consideration, Bush only gets 4.2%. Christie has improved his standing of late, but still scores lower than Bush.

However, given FBN’s position-based system, it looks like a lock for six people on the undercard. As far as candidate grievances from that switch, Paul doesn’t even have the biggest claim. John Kasich barely loses out to Bush for fifth place in New Hampshire (by 0.3 points), where Paul barely registers. Paul comes in sixth in Iowa but trails Bush by more than two points in the RCP average.

However, it’s Paul who’s threatening to pull out of the debates rather than get sent to the kid’s table. That’s exactly how Paul characterized it to Fox’s Brian Kilmeade:

“I won’t participate in any kind of second-tier debate,” the Kentucky senator said on Kilmeade and Friends. “We’ve got a first-tier campaign. I’ve got 800 precinct chairman in Iowa. I’ve got a 100 people on the ground working for me. I’ve raised 25 million dollars. I’m not gonna let any network or anybody tell me we’re not a first-tier campaign. If you tell a campaign with three weeks to go that they’re in the second-tier, you destroy the campaign. This isn’t the job of the media to pick who wins. The voters ought to get a chance.”

Paul said limiting the number of candidates lays “it up in a lap” for Donald Trump, adding that he is the only candidate who would challenge the businessman. He said the network relegating him to the second-tier debate is a designation as an unserious campaign, and attacked the use of what he called imprecise polling to determine which candidates get on the stage.

“I frankly just won’t be told by the media which tier I’m in, and we’re not willing to accept that, because we’re a first-tier campaign and we’re in it to win it and we won’t be told that we’re in a tier that can’t win,” he said.

Asked about high viewership for the undercard debate, Paul said it was about the perception of not being a competitor. “It’s the kids table and at that table you’re not considered to be a competitor,” Paul said. “Not considered to be having a chance.”

It’s a tough problem, both for the broadcasters and the candidates. Supporters of candidates on the bubble complain that polling is not entirely reliable (true) and that allowing broadcasters to use them risks having the media narrow voter options (potentially true). The problem is that a debate with 14 people on stage would be impossible to stage properly — and even that number is a restriction based on polling. There are hundreds of people who have declared their run for the GOP nomination; one former governor (Jim Gilmore) hasn’t been invited to any of the debates since August [see update], based in large part on polling. In order to keep debates effective, organizers have to find some way to break up the large field, and polling average is about the only metric that provides any chance of objectivity.

Curiously, one option —  random selection — has not been tried, even though it might potentially produce even better ratings across debates. If one or two of the frontrunners ended up in the first round, might not their more numerous supporters tune in early? With as many debates as we have seen, it’s a little surprising that it hasn’t come up. Perhaps there was too much resistance among the frontrunners for it.

At any rate, Paul’s implied threat to pull out probably won’t break many hearts. At this point, voters might want to have more stage time given to candidates who have a chance to win, and even six still might seem a little crowded. If Paul opts out and others follow suit — Kasich and Fiorina might have objections to a demotion too — then it might be time to end the undercard debate altogether. That won’t break many hearts either, I suspect.

Update: Originally, I stated that Jim Gilmore hadn’t been invited to any of the debates. Twitter reader Knight of the Right points out that Gilmore did get invited to the first undercard debate in August:

That’s correct, and I’ve changed the wording in the post to reflect it. Thanks to Knight for his reminder.