New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have been demoted to the undercard for next week’s prime time Republican presidential debate, while Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George E. Pataki learned that they did not get an invite — stoking speculation as to whether their sputtering campaigns can survive the damaging blow.
Fox Business Network announced Thursday that businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson will take center stage at the two-hour event in Milwaukee. The debate, scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. EST, is the fourth of the nomination race and also will feature Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, who have picked up momentum.
Rounding out the main debate stage will be former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“Those who are zero in the polls need to be banned from any debates because you only get so many months to convince likely voters that you are presidential material,” said Steffen Schmidt, political science professor at Iowa State University. “At this point, the GOP needs to winnow the field. Quickly.
“Since no one is in charge, it looks like the networks sponsoring the debates will do this, which is unbelievable. The RNC should have the lead on this,” he said.
Mr. Christie and Mr. Huckabee will participate in the 6 p.m. debate along with former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Mr. Christie downplayed the demotion on Twitter. “It doesn’t matter the stage, give me a podium and I’ll be there to talk about real issues like this,” he Tweeted, along with a link to a video showing him talking about tackling the problem of drug addiction.
After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee looked to get a better handle on the unruly nomination process, which included more than two dozen debates. It was blamed for damaging Mitt Romney’s chances of winning The White House.
The RNC has scheduled 12 debates, and the networks that hosted the first three — Fox News, CNN and CNBC — capped the number of participants based on national polling because of the size of the field, which once stood at 17.
The Jindal camp and other lagging candidates have argued that the debate threshold should take into account polls from the earlier primary states — namely Iowa and New Hampshire.
Fox Business Network announced last week that the candidates would have to have an average of at least 2.5 percent support in the four most recent national polls conducted through Nov. 4 to get a spot in the prime-time debate and garner at least 1 percent in the polls to earn a spot on the undercard.
The reshuffling of the lineup was announced on “Lou Dobbs Tonight.” It marks another tough turn of events for experienced candidates, including several current and former governors, in a race in which political outsiders are favorites.
In September, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry ended his second White House bid not long after failing to make a main debate stage, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called it quits after delivering flat performances.
Mr. Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, has focused much of his attention once again on the Hawkeye State, where he is running in seventh place, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls. Mr. Christie has zeroed in on New Hampshire. He is running eighth there.
The announcement is particularly bad news for Mr. Christie. He hoped to capitalize on his widely celebrated debate performance last week in Colorado.
But the tough-talking governor continues to struggle for a breakthrough, as evidenced by a Fox News poll of Republican primary voters that put him at 2 percent. Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson captured 26 percent and 23 percent support, respectively.
Ford O’Connell, a Republican Party strategist, said the candidacies of Mr. Christie and Mr. Huckabee could be doomed “because of the stigma attached to being on the undercard, and we are roughly 80-plus days to the first nominating contest.”
“There just is not enough time to recover,” Mr. O’Connell said. “Politics is all about perception, and if you are not in the prime-time portion of the debates, it is going to be very hard for voters to get excited about you given the size and scope of the current field.
“Put it another way, how does getting demoted to Pawtucket help you make a MLB all-star game?” he said, alluding to the Boston Red Sox AAA baseball affiliate in Rhode Island.
The debate Tuesday will be moderated by Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business Network and Gerard Baker, the Wall Street Journal’s editor-in-chief.