GOP slashes Feb. debate undercard contest
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ABC News will not include an undercard contest during its Republican presidential debate in February, according to new criteria released from the network.

The decision threatens to cut the debate stage to as few as six candidates just three days before New Hampshire primary.


Candidates will have three avenues to make the debate stage. The top three finishers in the Iowa caucuses' popular vote will punch a ticket to the stage, as well as any candidate polling within the top six in averages of recent New Hampshire or national polls. ABC News sources confirmed that there will not be an additional debate for those candidates who do not meet that criteria. 

That could make Thursday's debate on Fox News the last chance for a handful of candidates to prove to a national audience why they belong on the debate stage. 

As polling stands so far, the new criteria would drop Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulUS ambassador to Germany ruffles State Department with budget stand Overnight Defense: Congressional leaders receive classified briefing on Iran | Trump on war: 'I hope not' | Key Republican calls threats credible | Warren plan targets corporate influence at Pentagon Rand Paul: Bolton is a 'malign influence' MORE, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum from the national stage. While Chris Christie and John Kasich aren't polling as well nationally or in Iowa, they could be saved by strong polling in New Hampshire.

But since the network will consider polling up through next Thursday, three days after the Iowa caucuses, any surprises in the caucuses could translate to a last-minute bump or dive at the polls that could threaten to shake up the field days before the vital contest. Some candidates also may drop out after poor showings in Iowa, further winnowing the field. 

Democrats don't currently have an official debate scheduled before the New Hampshire primary, but the New Hampshire Union Leader and MSNBC have announced an unsanctioned debate and are encouraging Democratic candidates to attend.