Christie, Huckabee Lose Main Stage Debate Slots

The stage in Milwaukee for the fourth Republican debate next week will be noticeably changed from previous face-offs in this election cycle, for both the undercard debate and the prime-time one.

For the first time, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will not be among the candidates on the main stage, the host network, Fox Business, announced Thursday.

Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki, who have appeared in each of the undercard debates to date, did not meet the threshold this time to participate in the earlier round.

The new debate rosters, derived from a controversial sample of national polls, threaten to further fuel ire among candidates and their campaigns over the debate selection process and format.

Fox Business set its national polling threshold for the prime-time debate at 3 percent, while candidates must average 1 percent to qualify for the undercard. To calculate those averages, the network used four recent national polls – including one, conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, which included the names of only 10 of the candidates.

Graham’s campaign manager Christian Ferry said in a statement that he is “sincerely disappointed” Fox Business decided to use the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which did not ask about Graham.

“It is ironic that the only veteran in the race is going to be denied a voice the day before Veterans Day,” Ferry said. “In the end, the biggest loser tonight is the American people and the Republican Party primary process that has been hijacked by news outlets.”

It wasn’t just marginalized candidates who took issue with the selection process. Jeb Bush, whose polling qualifies him for the prime-time debate, expressed support for Graham on Twitter, writing: “Disagree with debate rules that prevent (Graham’s) voice from being heard – his foreign policy message is an important one in particular.”

In a primary that has traditionally empowered voters in a few small states to choose the party’s nominee, candidates and other Republicans have balked as the debates this year have done the opposite, instead putting emphasis on national polling.

As Fox Business announced its debate rosters Thursday, Christie was engaged in the sort of retail politicking that in past cycles has been prized and rewarded: convening a round-table meeting in Somersworth, N.H., to discuss drug addiction and treatment with local law enforcement and advocates. The issue has been at the center of Christie’s New Hampshire campaign and has recently brought him broad national attention, too, after a video of Christie speaking about drug addiction went viral. The video, posted by Huffington Post, had 5.8 million views as of Thursday night.

Even that, however, was too little, too late, to keep Christie on the main debate stage.

Earlier Thursday, at a campaign stop in Nashua, N.H., Christie insisted he would deliver a strong debate performance whether he was slotted in the undercard or the prime-time round.

“What I’m going to continue to do is be myself,” Christie said. “Whether on one stage in Milwaukee, or a different stage in Milwaukee, or whether you want to put podiums out here … and invite some people up, I’ll debate wherever people want to debate on whatever the important issues are for the country.”

And Christie predicted that the diminished viewership and press attention for the undercard debate would not necessarily preclude a breakout moment for him.

“For me? It’s never hard to be memorable,” Christie said. Indeed, Christie’s debate performances have been widely discussed on social media, often surpassing all other candidates in chatter.

For other candidates, it has been an intense battle to collect crumbs of press attention from the undercard debate – and this time, Pataki and Graham will be robbed even of that platform.

Graham, asked earlier Thursday what he would do if he didn’t make any debate stage this time, seemed deflated by the idea, but doggedly shrugged it off: “Wait for the next one, I guess.”

The fourth GOP debate comes as many of the campaigns have threatened mutiny over debate formats and moderators, in particular following a rocky debate hosted last month by CNBC. Senior aides to the campaigns met over the weekend outside of Washington, D.C., to arrive at a consensus regarding proposed changes, but only a few campaigns ultimately signed on.

Rebecca Berg