WASHINGTON — Eleven Republican presidential candidates have qualified for next week’s prime-time debate, a slate that features the full diversity of the GOP’s 2016 class and is believed to be the largest group to share a presidential-debate stage in modern political history.
The candidates scheduled to meet for Wednesday’s prime-time affair, announced Thursday night by debate host CNN, will include former technology executive Carly Fiorina, whose weak polling numbers kept her off the main stage of the first debate. But a bump in the polls and an aggressive lobbying effort persuaded CNN to broaden its participation criteria, a coup for Fiorina and GOP officials eager to feature the party’s only 2016 female candidate in the nationally televised clash.
But don’t expect Fiorina to get as much airtime as Donald Trump, who will be positioned front and center when the candidates meet at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. The undisputed leader in national polls, Trump is generally considered the biggest reason why Fox News Channel reached 24 million people for the first GOP presidential debate last month — the most-watched program in Fox News history.
Sharing the stage with Trump and Fiorina at next week’s 8 p.m. EDT debate will be former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
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Five candidates lagging in national polls did not qualify for the main event and will be featured in a 6 p.m. debate in the same venue: former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former New York Gov. George Pataki.
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who participated in the second-string GOP debate in August, did not meet the criteria for inclusion in next Wednesday’s event. Candidates were required to average 1 percent support in any three polls released during a two-month window.
The final lineup offers few surprises, yet plenty of challenges for candidates and organizers ahead of the crowded affair.
The candidates, increasingly certain that their televised debates can have make-or-break consequences for their campaigns, are preparing aggressive new tactics for their coming faceoff, hoping to draw voters away from the surprisingly durable Trump as the race enters a more combative phase.
With onetime front-runners Bush and Walker sagging in the polls after middling performances in the last debate — and with Trump rising despite divisive comments — many of the candidates are convinced that they are better off using the debates to make forceful and targeted appeals to viewers, rather than trying to knock out Trump, advisers to several campaigns said.
They point to the improved political fortunes of Fiorina and Kasich after they gave crisp and confident answers in August, and of Carson, whose appeal among social conservatives has intensified since he discussed God, freedom and his experiences as a surgeon at the end of the last debate.
“There’s no panic here; it’s not like we have to swing for the fences, but rather, the goal is to hit some real singles in Wednesday’s debate,” said Ed Goeas, a senior adviser to Walker, the Wisconsin governor. “Now that we’re heading into the fall political season, it’s a natural time to take the campaign to the next level.”
For Bush and Fiorina, the mission is clear, if not simple: Shame the seemingly shameless Trump.
Both are expected to take on Trump most aggressively — Bush, after being mercilessly derided for his leadership ability and energy level; Fiorina, in response to attacks by Trump on her business record and even her looks.
A wave of criticism rose Thursday after Trump insulted Fiorina’s physical appearance. Jindal called Trump “a madman,” while Bush dismissed Trump’s latest comments as “small and inappropriate.” And Fiorina suggested she was “getting under his skin.”
The spark was an interview published Wednesday by Rolling Stone, in which Trump said Fiorina’s face would make her unelectable. The magazine quoted Trump as saying of the former technology executive: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”
Bush’s advisers say he will confront Trump for not “sharing the values” of conservatives, as one put it. Fiorina, Republicans close to her say, has a more delicate balance to strike as she tries to rise above any attacks from Trump while making him look small if he unloads them.
Rubio, frustrated that the last debate did not give him many chances to talk about foreign policy, his perceived strength, will look for openings to win over Republicans who are most concerned about the nation’s security, his allies say.
And Paul, who gained little from tangling with Trump and Christie in the August debate, hopes to shore up his tea-party support by talking about his plans to restrain the power of the federal government.
Mindful that 24 million people watched the August debate on Fox, the Republicans have come to see these monthly encounters as their greatest opportunity to try to break out from the 17-candidate field.