Make or break for Rand Paul

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Thursday will be a pivotal day in Rand PaulRand PaulSaudi skeptics gain strength in Congress Senators challenge status quo on Saudi arms sales Five tips from Trump's fallen rivals on how to debate him MORE’s presidential bid: Either he will be absent from the second-to-last GOP debate before primary season begins or he will be on stage during the prime-time event in front of millions of eyeballs. 

His fate comes down to whether Fox Business Network acquiesces to his plea to be included or whether he relents from his insistence that he will skip the undercard debate, which he was bumped down to after failing to meet the network’s criteria.

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Paul argues that a poll released on Wednesday shows he should qualify despite the fact that it was released outside of the network’s window of consideration.

The Kentucky senator launched a media tour on Wednesday, appearing on several TV and radio talk shows to make his case.

“I don’t think anybody in the media should decide or have an artificial designation on who can and who cannot win, and that’s what it does,” Paul said Wednesday on -MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“We have 1,000 precinct chairs in Iowa. We have a bigger and stronger organization arguably than any candidate in Iowa. So, I don’t think it’s fair for them to arbitrarily to come in and say, ‘Oh, well, we’ve decided that because you’re [two-tenths of a percent] behind in some arbitrary polls with an arbitrary setting, that we’re not going to include you.’ ”

He blamed the Republican Party, which he criticized for trying to narrow the field and warned against pushing out his “unique voice” on foreign policy.

“The Republican Party needs — they said they want a big party, they want a big tent, well it’s not a very big tent if you push out all the liberty voters,” he said.

The writing had been on the wall for Paul from the moment Fox Business released its criteria — top six in national averages or top five in Iowa or New Hampshire in polls released before Monday night. He failed to clear that bar and was relegated to the undercard bout.

But Paul’s camp is pointing at a Wednesday Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll that bumps him into a tie for fifth place in Iowa with Jeb Bush, which would have likely earned him a spot on the main stage.

While that poll was released two days after the deadline, it was actually conducted before the cutoff date.

A Bloomberg spokesman told The Hill that the two organizations scheduled the poll’s release weeks ago and did not factor Fox Business’s criteria into that decision.

A Paul spokesman told The Hill on Wednesday that the campaign asked Fox Business to reconsider, but a network representative said it is standing by its criteria, which stipulated that polling must be “conducted and released” by Jan. 10 at 6 p.m. EST.

That said, other networks could provide Fox Business with cover if it does decide to add Paul. CNN amended its criteria to add a candidate to the main stage on two separate accounts, once to help Carly Fiorina and a second time to help Paul.

Paul’s spokesman told The Hill Tuesday night that instead of the debate, Paul will close out the week with a campaign swing through Iowa and New Hampshire.

But that’s a risky proposition, former Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn says.

“We still have a lot of caucusgoers who really start tuning in and fine tuning what their decision may be in the last month,” Strawn said.  

“Not only will you have a lot of national eyeballs, but you’ll have Iowa eyeballs starting to narrow their lists down to one or two candidates. It’s a missed opportunity to get in front of people as they are paying closer attention.

He added that it could hurt Paul’s standing with libertarian Republicans trying to finalize their choice.

“Those liberty-oriented voters are still vacillating between Rand Paul — which is where their heart is and where they’ve been with the Paul family for the past two cycles — or Ted CruzTed CruzPence offers Cruz 'heartfelt thanks' for Trump endorsement Cruz: Trump hasn't apologized for personal insults Cruz says he forgives Trump for attacks on family MORE, where their head may be on a candidate that may not align with them perfectly on anything but will be closer than anyone else to have the potential to go the distance,” he said.

“Not having any voice Thursday night means for those Iowa Republicans who have liberty leanings, Ted Cruz will be the only voice talking for them.”

But others see a potential advantage for Paul,  who has struggled to raise his poll numbers. 

“The way you might get more attention is by making a principled refusal to play a game whose rules are largely dictated by media organizations, which are not popular with the party base, to try to take the principled outsider perspective,” Baruch College professor and debate expert David Birdsell said.

He said that Paul’s argument is made more credible by staying out of the undercard debate on principle.

“There is a legitimate issue for him to capitalize on. It might not do him any good, but I, frankly, think it is more likely to do him good than participating in yet another undercard debate,” he said.

While significantly fewer people tend to watch the undercard debates, they are a chance at free national airtime. And Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina have both used lauded performances on the lower stage to propel their candidacy onto the main stage.

But Al Cross, a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky and political columnist for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, noted that it’s unlikely Paul could have the same success. Fiorina, he argued, had no national reputation before her undercard success, while Christie was able to capitalize his outspoken personality.

“All of this is a calculation, and they probably figured they are better off to have these appearances where he gets to say his own thing rather than sparring with others,” Cross said.

“Rand Paul has been a national figure for several years. He’s been on the cover of Time magazine as the most interesting politician in the country. The shine has faded, and you don’t make that big of a splash again."