- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2015

MANCHESTER, N.H. — More than a dozen of the Republican presidential contenders are set to converge Monday for the Voters First Forum, which is billed as a chance to turn attention away from national polls and refocus on the important role voters play in states that host early nomination contests.

Hosted by the New Hampshire Union Leader; The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina; and The Gazette of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the forum was organized in response to the Fox News debate later this week that will be limited to the top 10 Republican candidates based on nationwide surveys.

“Voters First Forum is a true opportunity for voters to get the first good look at all the Republican candidates for president rather than only seeing some of them in the debate later this week where participants are chosen by the media,” said Mike Dennehy, a New Hampshire-based Republican Party consultant and adviser to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is on the debate bubble. “Voters First Forum is a testament to the early state primary and caucus process.”

Fourteen candidates are expected to participate, including several who are likely to be left out of the Fox debate: Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George E. Pataki and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

Mr. Graham touted the importance of the New Hampshire primary during a campaign stop at an American Legion post over the weekend with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, whose 2008 victory in New Hampshire was key to his party’s nomination.

“National polling is about name ID. It is about celebrity,” Mr. Graham said. “New Hampshire is about competency and character.”

A day earlier, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who also could be left out of the first debate in his home state, described New Hampshire, where independents can vote in the primary, as a “screener.”

“Iowa is important, it is caucus, but here, it is like anybody can vote, right?” Mr. Kasich said. “So you are like the screener for the country, and you feel people, you look at them and then you make the decision of whether you are going to send them on. This is really a critical state.”

The forum is unlikely to influence who makes it into the first Republican National Committee-sanctioned debate because Fox News has said the top 10 candidates will be determined based on polls as of 5 p.m. Tuesday.

For some of those who are left out of the 9 p.m. debate Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland, Fox will host a 5 p.m. event described as the “kids’ table.”

The Voter’s First Forum will be televised nationally on C-SPAN, providing the sort of exposure has been in short supply since the rise of Donald Trump, who is skipping the forum after rocketing to the front of polls nationally as well as in New Hampshire.

The push to qualify for the first Republican presidential debate has generated a midsummer mad dash from candidates who are on the verge of being left out. Some of the campaigns and super PACs have run television and radio ads.

Eight of the 10 candidates in the Fox News debate are likely sewn up, leaving the rest of the field to do everything in their power to raise their profiles in hopes of landing one of the final two spots.

The battle appears to be boiling down to a fight among Mr. Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Texas Gov. Mr. Perry, who said on “Fox News Sunday” that he expects to be on the stage before he downplayed the overall importance of the first debate.

“How you do in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina is going to have a lot more to do with who is going to be the nominee than whether somebody makes a debate presentation on the 6th of August of 2015,” Mr. Perry said.

Mr. Christie predicted that he would be at the debate and said it would be an important opportunity for him to make his pitch. He also suggested that the importance of who makes it to the debate stage is overblown.

“Let’s all take a deep breath,” he said. “You know, four years ago, Herman Cain was winning right now. Eight years ago, Rudy Giuliani was winning right now.”

Mr. Kasich, meanwhile, suggested during a campaign stop Friday in New Hampshire that he is playing the long game.

“It’s a long way to Tipperary here,” he told reporters, alluding to the popular World War I song. “The nomination is a long and winding road. I am not too worried about who’s in or who’s out. I just do what I can do.”

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