WASHINGTON | By John Whitesides
Republican Governors Chris Christie and John Kasich on Tuesday grabbed the last spots on stage next to front-runner Donald Trump and seven others in the first prime-time presidential debate, winning a potentially valuable head start in exposure.
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum and five others in the crowded 2016 Republican field were left out of Thursday's televised 9 p.m. EDT debate by host Fox News, which invited the top 10 candidates in an average of five recent opinion polls.
The leftover candidates will appear in a separate forum outside of the spotlight at 5 p.m. EDT on Thursday, leaving them fighting to win attention and prove to voters and donors they have a legitimate shot at the nomination.
At center stage in prime time will be Trump, the real estate mogul who has shot to the top of Republican polls, flanked by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the top three finishers in the poll average.
Also making the cut were former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Governors Christie of New Jersey and Kasich of Ohio.
Shuffled to the earlier forum were Perry, Santorum, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former business executive Carly Fiorina, former New York Governor George Pataki and former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore.
Those candidates deemed not ready for prime time at the Cleveland debate tried to stay positive.
"I look forward to answering questions on Thursday in Cleveland," Fiorina said in a statement. Perry said on Twitter he looked forward to the forum "for what will be a serious exchange of ideas and positive solutions to get America back on track."
Fox's decision to limit the participants created weeks of anxiety for those on the bubble. It also was criticized by some Republicans as unfair given the number of candidates bunched in the low single digits, well within the margin of error of most polls.
Fox said Kasich, the last debate qualifier, averaged 3.2 percent in the polling. Perry, the first one out, averaged 1.8 percent.
Fox said it used polls conducted by Bloomberg, CBS News, Fox News, Monmouth University and Quinnipiac University, the five most recent national polls using standard methodology.
(Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson; Editing by Sandra Maler, Eric Beech and Leslie Adler)