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The GOP’s debate problem, Name recognition is Everything

ABC NEWS - The ABC News Republican Presidential debate moderated by Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos live at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa on Saturday, December 10, 2011, airing on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Matthew Putney/ABC via Getty Images)

CONCORD, N.H. — For weeks, Rick Santorum has tried to shake every last hand in Iowa and New Hampshire. Lindsey Graham has been shuttling up to New Hampshire almost every other weekend to meet with small groups of voters. Carly Fiorina and Rick Perry have been getting rave reviews from their crowds in a number of the early states.

But all four may miss out on the first Republican presidential debate in August because they haven’t spent enough time on national TV.

Trump, who hasn’t actually announced and has a long history of pretending he’s going to run for president, might make the debate stage under current rules simply because his notoriety affords him a level of name recognition that many candidates can’t come close to. According to the criteria released by Fox News, which will host the Aug. 6 debate, the 10 candidates who make the stage will be determined by an average of five recent national polls — and when Trump’s name is tested, his performance suggests he’d be one of the 10.

The national polling threshold also gives an edge to Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who’s spent the past several years hosting his own Fox show, and Ben Carson, the former neurosurgeon who’s become a darling of grass-roots conservatives in part because of his frequent appearances on the network.

Huckabee, who’s been out of office for eight years, and Carson currently rank sixth and seventh in the national polls, respectively, and thus would qualify for the first debate if it were held today. But announced and prospective candidates such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Fiorina — the only woman in the field — would not meet the threshold.

A number of campaigns, speaking on background, are unhappy that the Republican National Committee, which decided to insert itself into the debate process early on by limiting the number of debates and spacing them out, appears to have kicked to the networks the more difficult and consequential issue of who participates.

Fiorina’s campaign hasn’t complained publicly, saying only that it expects her “momentum” will enable her to qualify. But her campaign manager’s public statement about the debate criteria also included an implicit criticism of a selection process that doesn’t reward hard campaigning in the early voting states.

“The criteria used to select debate inclusion should be reflective of how our party’s nominee will eventually be chosen,” said Steve DeMaura, Fiorina’s campaign manager. “The path to the Republican nomination begins in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The voters of those states should be the ones narrowing the Republican field of candidates.”

As it stands, in order to make the Fox debate (or, in CNN’s case, the upper- and lower-tier debates), campaigns have cause to focus more effort and resources into building their candidate’s national profile rather than meeting voters in retail settings.

None of this changes the strategy for the front-runners and best-known candidates — such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — who enjoy high enough name ID to virtually guarantee their spot onstage.

“If I run, I’m going to work hard to get into that top tier for sure,” Jeb Bush said Thursday, in full knowledge that it’s not an issue he needs to be concerned about.

Both the RNC and its network media partners have good reason for wanting to prevent the debates from becoming a free-for-all — a more manageable debate makes for better television, and the leading candidates stand to benefit from having more time to make their case.

“As the campaign develops and the candidates get their bearings against each other at the top level of the race, they need the opportunity to take shots at each other at the top of the field to establish their positives and their opponents’ negatives, and that’s really hard to do with a lot of candidates on the stage,” said Steve Schmidt, the strategist who guided John McCain’s 2008 campaign.

Santorum argues that at least the first debate should be open to all “legitimate” candidates, a more subjective classification that makes it harder to draw any sort of line.

“If you’re a United States senator, if you’re a governor, if you’re a woman who ran a Fortune 500 company, and you’re running a legitimate campaign for president, then you should have a right to be onstage with everybody else,” Santorum said.

Yet that might not be an accurate reflection of how modern presidential politics actually works.

“We live in a society that values celebrity, and our nominee is going to have to go up against Hillary Clinton, who’s got a million percent name ID,” Wilson said. “And, in reality, all of these campaigns are working to build the same thing. Your political operation now is a start-up operation that lasts for a year and half, and that’s your time to build a celebrity.”

Katie Glueck contributed to this report.

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