Republican 2016 Presidential Debate: The Challenge Of Being Relegated To The 'Kids Table'

When Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham was asked recently what he thought about being excluded from the very first prime-time debate, the South Carolina senator didn't mince words: "It sucks," he said.

It does at that, and not just for him, but for the other low-polling candidates who will be relegated to the so-called second-tier debate being hosted by Fox News on Thursday, hours before the likes of Donald Trump, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio hog the media spotlight at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena.

Because it would be near impossible to hold just one debate for all the declared Republican contenders (currently at 17), Fox News decided to hold two debates on the same night. The top 10 candidates with the highest aggregate average poll numbers will appear in the 9 p.m. debate.

The rest will participate in a not-for-prime-time round at 5 p.m., a significant blow for campaigns already struggling to gain traction among a competitive and crowded field. (Fox had initially said candidates would need at least a one per cent or higher polling average to take part in the second-tier debate, but it has since dropped the requirement.)

"It doesn't mean it's over, but it certainly means you're starting out on life support," says Washington-based Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.

"You can recover but it also requires somebody else up top to trip and fall," he says.

"You're going to have to try and generate headlines," says O'Connell, though he cautions that could be "a risky proposition.

"Try not to throw grenades but you're going to have to spice it up."

Read more from Mark Gollom at CBC News

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Analysis & Political Strategy