Stage set for Fox’s ‘happy hour debate’

While most of today’s focus is on the primetime GOP debate on Fox News, the Republican contenders relegated to the earlier debate in Cleveland are making the most of their turn in the spotlight.

Candidates who felt spurned on Tuesday when Fox announced they wouldn’t make the stage for the 9 p.m. faceoff say they’re raring to go for the 5 p.m. debate.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who just missed making the top 10, tweeted:

Even former Sen. Rick Santorum, who was still critical of Fox’s debate criteria even after the top 10 were announced, changed his outlook — at least on Twitter — a few hours before the 5 p.m. debate was set to begin.

The format for the earlier debate will be the same as the later one, said Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum, who will moderate the early debate along with anchor Bill Hemmer.

“The same rules apply,” she said on Fox News Thursday afternoon. “The debates are really mirror images of each other so that there’s consisency across the board for the evening. Our goal is to give everybody an opportunity to speak to the American people.”

There may be advantages to being in the early debate.

“I actually think we’re in a better position,” said Brett O’Donnell, a Republican consultant helping Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) prepare for the debate. 

“We’re calling it the happy hour debate,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s going to be more substantive and give you a real opportunity to show you’re ready to be president, as opposed to just ready to take on Donald Trump.” 

Based on national polling numbers, Fox News will put the top 10 candidates on stage for the main event. 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich snagged the final two spots on Tuesday, joining businessman Donald Trump, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul on stage for the highly anticipated event that will draw millions of viewers. 

That leaves an accomplished group of candidates, including the winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses, the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, three current or former governors and a U.S. senator on the outside looking in. 

As consolation, Graham, Perry, Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore will participate in an earlier event airing at 5 p.m. on Thursday. 

“The frustrating part is that everyone in the second group deserves to be taken seriously,” said Republican pollster David Winston, a veteran of Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign. “This is an unfortunate dynamic.” 

The advantages to making the top 10 are clear, Winston said.

“It’s significant. If the perception is that you’re not a part of that top group, people are going to look at you differently.” 

However, some in the party see an opportunity for a candidate in the lower tier to break out on the strength of a strong performance. 

“The early debate is a chance for someone to get in the highlight reel before the main event,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce political strategist Scott Reed. 

Republicans say there’s opportunity for Perry in a lower-stakes setting to showcase the stronger grasp on policy that has earned him raves on the campaign trail. 

And they say Fiorina is a blank slate who will be introducing herself to many conservative voters for the first time, after emerging on the campaign trail as one of Hillary Clinton’s sharpest critics. 

“Fiorina continues to shine in these forums and has a chance to move up to the adult table by the September (CNN) debate,” Reed said. 

In addition, Graham has impressed with a relaxed style and colloquial turns of phrase that have earned him media coverage. On Monday night, he memorably dug at the “Clinton speak” he says he’s become a pro at deciphering. 

“That was the best line of the night,” O’Donnell crowed. 

Meanwhile, Jindal’s firebrand conservatism sets him up to potentially grab the spotlight on Thursday evening. 

And liberal anchor Rachel Maddow has called Santorum one of the best conservative communicators out there. He’ll have a chance early Thursday to remind voters what attracted them to him in 2012. 

For Gilmore, this will be the greatest exposure he has had since he launched his campaign last week. 

“They all have a chance to break out here,” said Republican strategist Charlie Black. “Right now, many of them are among the least known candidates, but that 5 o’clock slot on Fox still pulls a strong audience on a daily basis. They’ll be looking to say something interesting, get better known and land some kind of follow-up news coverage. One of them will.” 

Black said the candidates could stand out by making a policy point in a way that nobody has done before, dropping an illustrative or newsworthy anecdote about themselves that people haven’t heard or going the old fashioned route and picking a fight. 

Challenges remain. 

“They’ll be delivering content in a context that won’t be measured against that top tier,” Winston said. “They’re going to have to be really compelling to warrant standalone coverage that really leaves a mark.” 

Still, things could always be worse. 

The second-tier debate was initially supposed to take place at 1 p.m., on Thursday, but Fox has pushed it back closer to prime time at 5 p.m., although it’s been shortened from 90 minutes to one hour. Fox also removed a threshold that required participants in the secondary debate to be polling with at least 1 percent support. 

Tags 2016 debates 2016 GOP presidential primary Donald Trump Fox News debate GOP debate Hillary Clinton Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Rand Paul Ted Cruz

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