Get ready for what might be the final GOP undercard debate of the 2016 cycle, which starts at 7 pm ET in Iowa. ABC announced earlier today that their event in New Hampshire on February 6th will be a single debate, potentially eliminating the trailing also-rans for the first time:
ABC announced changes to the rules for the next Republican presidential debate that could limit the number of candidates on stage to six.
The network said candidates need to do one of three things to qualify for the Feb, 6 debate in New Hampshire: place in the top three in the Iowa caucuses, place among the top six candidates in an average of selected New Hampshire Republican presidential polls or place among the top six in Republican presidential polls nationally.
The criteria will pare two separate events — an undercard debate and a primary debate — to a single event. That could make Thursday’s debate on Fox News the last chance for a handful of candidates to prove to a national audience why they belong on the debate stage.
Rand Paul would face the axe at the moment with those criteria, and so would Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum. Paul had a few words for ABC, even though he boycotted an undercard debate earlier this month:
“It’s a little bit irresponsible,” Paul spokesman Sergio Gor said in an interview in Iowa, before the Fox News/Google debate Thursday night. “Voters should be the ones making these decisions and not network executives in New York.”
Gor said he is appealing to ABC and also pressing his case with the Republican National Committee, which oversees the debates.
Paul boycotted the Fox Business debate in South Carolina when he was relegated to the undercard, but his showing in the Iowa polls landed him a spot on the main stage tonight.
Well, if he didn’t want to attend the undercard in South Carolina, why should ABC hold one in New Hampshire? The alternative is to put everyone on stage at the same time, which would be a mess; it’s been bad enough with the nine or ten on stage in the main debates with the undercards available. At some point, the field has to narrow down anyway, and it may be likely that Iowa’s results will make this more or less a moot point anyway.
The undercard tonight makes ABC’s case a little more strong, too. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore makes his first appearance in months, along with Santorum, Fiorina, and Huckabee. Where is Gilmore polling? RCP doesn’t even bother to list him for their averaging. And the big question will be whether one or more of these will be no-shows, as Donald Trump has been bragging that they might join him for his alternate event after pulling out of the main debate:
Wow, two candidates called last night and said they want to go to my event tonight at Drake University.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 28, 2016
One of them may be Huckabee, who might have trouble making both the undercard and Trump’s event:
Scoop: Huckabee will be attending the Trump vets event tonight, a Huckabee spokesman tells me.
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) January 28, 2016
The Huckabee campaign says he’ll do both:
Mike Huckabee will attend Donald Trump’s pro-veterans event on Thursday at the same time as Fox News’s GOP debate.
Hogan Gidley, a Huckabee spokesman, told The Hill that the former Arkansas governor will still participate in Thursday’s undercard debate, but will head to the Trump event after it ends.
The undercard debate begins at 7 p.m. EST, two hours before Trump’s event is slated to start just three miles down the road.
Huckabee will have company, too:
— John Santucci (@JTSantucci) January 28, 2016
Who knows? Maybe Huckabee and Santorum will endorse Trump at the event and make an even better case for scotching the undercards. Both are all but doing that now anyway. Be sure to tune in and see whether the Fox panel challenges Huckabee and/or Santorum on it, and to get the full breadth of Gilmore’s observations on policy and politics.