Rand Paul makes main debate stage
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Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSaudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP Noisy democracy, or rude people behaving like children? Lawmakers, Wall Street shrug off Trump's escalating Fed attacks 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 John TrumpCorker: US must determine responsibility in Saudi journalist's death Five takeaways from testy Heller-Rosen debate in Nevada Dem senator calls for US action after 'preposterous' Saudi explanation MORE, Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzElection Countdown: Small-donor donations explode | Russian woman charged with midterm interference | Takeaways from North Dakota Senate debate | O'Rourke gives 'definitive no' to 2020 run | Dems hope Latino voters turn Arizona blue White vote is 'fundamental problem' for Texas Dems, political analysts says Houston Chronicle endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race MORE, Ben Carson, Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioMeghan McCain calls Russian attacks against her father the 'highest compliment' to her family The Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump GOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia 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.