Two weeks to go: Republicans scramble to make debate stage

The race is on for the final spots on stage for the first Republican debate.

With the highly-anticipated showdown less than two weeks away, candidates with low polling numbers are in a high-stakes scramble to qualify for an event that represents their best shot at breaking out.

Fox News is capping the Aug. 6 debate in Cleveland at 10 candidates based on five as-of-yet unspecified national polls released by 5 p.m. on Aug. 4.

Based on five polls used by RealClearPolitics (RCP), eight candidates look like locks to make the stage, while the race for the final two slots is headed for a controversial photo finish. For the candidates currently ranked between ninth place and 14th place, the polling differential is negligible.

“It’s a roll of the dice,” said Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray. “It’s going to come down to the vagaries of how independent pollsters round off their results — we’re talking tenths of decimal points. It could come down to the five or six people who didn’t pick up their phones for a national survey and the five or six people who did.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal are separated by only 1.5 percentage points, according to the RCP national average at the end of last week.

Christie looks to be in the best shape of the bunch, sitting in 9th place with 2.8 percent support. Perry and Kasich are tied for 10th with 1.8 percent support, followed by Fiorina and Santorum at 1.4 percent, and Jindal at 1.2. (By contrast, the lowest of the top eight, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), has 5.4 percent support; the highest, Donald Trump, has 18.2 percent.)

Getting left out of the first debate would be a significant blow to all of their prospects.

“It’s extremely important to be out there,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “If you’re not there, it’s out-of-sight-out-of-mind for voters, and just as importantly right now, for your fundraising efforts.”

For Christie and Santorum, missing the debate would put a spotlight on how far their stars have fallen.

Christie was once flying high in the polls. As early as last year he was considered by many a favorite to win the nomination. And Santorum is the most recent winner of the Iowa caucuses, having emerged in 2012 as the primary challenger to eventual nominee Mitt Romney.

Meanwhile, Kasich risks being frozen out of a debate that will take place in a state where he’s the sitting governor. For Perry, it would mean a missed opportunity for redemption after a mortifying brain-freeze on the debate stage essentially ended his presidential run in 2012.

A spot on the debate stage could legitimize Fiorina’s outsider bid while allowing her to showcase her much-lauded skills as a communicator. And some Republicans believe Jindal’s firebrand conservatism could catch on in Iowa, if only he could get the exposure.

It’s setting up as a dogfight among the campaigns to boost their standing nationally ahead of the debates. It means weighing the return on investment of spending early in an attempt to make the debate, versus mapping out a longer-term strategy.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said GOP strategist David Payne. “These candidates who are not polling well are forced to spend early money for national ad buys, while the earned media pathway is complicated by Donald Trump, who is costing every other candidate a chance to get in front of the camera. It’s a challenge.”

The campaign strategies for how the candidates plan to address that challenge are coming into view.

Christie’s campaign is betting big that a national advertising push can shore up his standing. This week, the campaign put $250,000 behind ads that will run on Fox News. The New Jersey governor is also getting an assist from a supporting super-PAC, which last week put more than $1 million into ads that will run in the Northeast. 

Perry is hitching his train to Donald Trump. He has emerged as the most vocal opponent of the businessman and reality TV star, who is riding a media frenzy to the top of the polls. Perry could get a lift from Trump’s media coattails.

In addition, the former Texas governor is getting help from the well-funded super-PACs backing his bid. The Opportunity and Freedom PAC has booked nearly $1 million in national ads on conservative TV and radio outlets ahead of the debate.

Austin Barbour, who runs the PAC, noted that Perry tied for seventh in last week’s ABC News-Washington Post poll. “My hope is that we’ll see a couple more polls like that because of this earned media he’s getting off Trump, the speeches he’s giving and what we’ve been doing with paid media.”

Meanwhile, Santorum said at an event in Washington earlier this month that he’d ramp up his media appearances before the debate, and he’s following through. On Wednesday, Santorum did two Fox News hits, appeared on CNN and a Bloomberg online show and finished the day sparring with liberal host Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.

Kasich’s political team says their strategy is to focus on New Hampshire rather than on resources meant to raise his profile nationally. But the Ohio governor’s political team spent significantly on TV ads ahead of his launch and will hope his late entrance into the race is perfectly timed to give him a polling boost heading into August.

Predictably, the complaining over Fox News’s debate standards has picked up in recent days.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamThe Hill's 12:30 Report 56 memorable moments from a wild presidential race High anxiety for GOP MORE (R-S.C.), who is barely registering in national polls, said on MSNBC last week that the parameters “suck,” while an adviser to Jindal’s campaign wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal arguing that every Republican running for president deserves a prime-time slot.

“When did we start fearing debates? And if we do fear debates, what business do we have trying to win elections,” wrote Curt Anderson. “The plan to limit the participants in these debates is ridiculous in almost every respect.”

The Louisiana governor has temporarily suspended his campaign to deal with a shooting at a movie theater in Lafayette.

Fox News is holding a one-hour forum for the candidates who don’t qualify for the main event earlier in the day.

“That secondary forum will have a lot of qualified, highly knowledgeable and articulate folks,” said Dave Catalfamo, a spokesperson for former New York Gov. George Pataki, who also barely registers in the polls. “It might end up being more substantive because the candidates won’t have to respond to whatever idiotic thing Donald Trump says.”

But most Republicans view it as a second-tier gathering nonetheless.

“If you’re not in that top 10, you’re not going to be taken as seriously,” said Bonjean. “You risk getting left behind."