Rand Paul makes main debate stage
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Rand PaulRand PaulOvernight Healthcare: Senate votes to begin ObamaCare repeal debate | McCain returns to vote | GOP floats scaled-down healthcare bill Overnight Regulation: House votes to repeal forced arbitration rule | Dems look to ban controversial pesticide | House panel wants to hear from tech CEOs on net neutrality Senate parliamentarian: More parts of ObamaCare repeal will need 60 votes MORE has squeaked back onto the main stage for Thursday’s GOP presidential debate thanks to a slight increase at the polls in Iowa just before the deadline.

The Kentucky senator was essentially a lock to fall short of two prongs of Fox News’s criteria — polling within the top six in an average of five national polls or top five in the average of recent New Hampshire polls.

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But a late surge pushed Paul into a tie with Jeb Bush for fifth place in Iowa, with both candidates averaging 4 percent in the polls considered by Fox. That punched Paul’s ticket for Thursday’s main event.

Paul had missed the cut for the Fox Business Network prime-time debate earlier this month, a decision he protested by skipping the undercard debate. He also had been on the fence for CNN’s December debate before the network relaxed its criteria to allow him to remain on stage.

All that prompted him to go on a tear against the media, accusing television networks hosting the debates of "playing God" by setting criteria that threatened to squeeze out candidates separated by the margin of error of most polls.

Paul’s ascendance to the main stage is the only difference in the debate lineup from the Fox Business Network debate earlier this month. He’ll join Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMellman: Trump love? Overnight Cybersecurity: Senate Judiciary reportedly drops Manafort subpoena | Kushner meets with House Intel | House passes Russia sanctions deal | What to watch at 'hacker summer camp' Don’t cut Public Service Loan Forgiveness program MORE, Ted CruzTed CruzSenate ObamaCare repeal, replace plan expected to need 60 votes GOP senator blames media for Trump-Sessions tension Trump won’t say if he’ll fire Sessions MORE, Ben Carson, Marco RubioMarco RubioMexican politicians have a new piñata: Donald Trump Bush ethics lawyer: Congress must tell Trump not to fire Mueller The private alternative to the National Flood Insurance Program  MORE, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich.

 

Aside from Paul, Kasich is the only candidate buoyed by a strong showing in state polling. While the Ohio governor is polling poorly nationally, he’s performing much stronger in New Hampshire.

Trump is currently flirting with skipping the debate in protest of moderator Megyn Kelly, with whom he has sparred with repeatedly ever since the race’s first debate, in August.

In an unexpected development, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore will join Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum in the undercard debate.

The Fox News debate is the last chance for the candidates to reach a national audience before voters head to caucus Monday night in Iowa. Trump and Cruz are both polling well ahead of their currently in a tier significantly ahead of their rivals at the polls in Iowa.

 

It will also likely include the last undercard event of the election cycle, as CBS News reports that next month’s ABC debate will not feature a second debate for lower-polling candidates. That debate will come in between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries.

- This story was updated at 6:31 p.m.