WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With Donald Trump sucking up the oxygen on the campaign trail, these are stressful days for the group of Republican candidates who, try as they might, may not qualify for their party’s first presidential debate in Cleveland next week.
Under controversial rules laid down by debate host Fox News and backed by the Republican National Committee (RNC), only the 10 top-polling candidates will share the prime-time stage on Aug. 6. But which polls Fox News executives will use is unclear, leading some candidates and campaigns to question the process.
With the Republican field the largest in history, fitting them on stage presents an unprecedented challenge. To have all 17 Republican candidates in the November 2016 race share the prime-time stage was deemed too many to let all get sufficient time to speak, potentially leading to a bickering family collage of finger-pointing and fulminating.
Real-estate mogul Trump currently leads the field and, with his out-sized personality, is getting the most media attention.
For the candidates at the bottom of the polls, being kept out of the big event could doom their chances and even accelerate their departure from the race.
Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican field, is scrambling to reach as many Republican voters as possible to increase her visibility in a way that will get her on the prime-time debate stage.
It is an uphill battle and she is more likely to share the stage with her six low-polling rivals, who are to be relegated to an hour-long debate in an earlier time slot on Fox News that will have fewer viewers. Her displeasure with how the debate is being shaped was evident in a conference call she did with supporters on Thursday.
“Look, the debate process, who knows what it is anymore?” Fiorina said. “I mean, the rules are unclear.”
Several officials from Republican campaigns said they are concerned that Fox News has lacked clarity and transparency in its debate preparations, and that this could provide more reason for complaints from the seven who don’t make it.
One party source said the Republican National Committee should have insisted on having two debates instead of one, and randomly split the field so that everyone could have some prime-time exposure.
Fox News relaxed one criteria this week, removing a requirement that its debate for the low-pollers have at least 1 percent support in polling. This will allow all the announced candidates to participate.
Fox News’ executive vice president of news, Michael Clemente, said Fox News has been “entirely transparent with the campaigns about every detail of our upcoming debates, and to suggest otherwise is factually inaccurate.”
He said there has never been more than 10 candidates on any Republican debate stage and that all 17 candidates will get a chance to be on stage in Cleveland over the course of the two sessions.
RNC chief strategist Sean Spicer wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion article this week that the “Republican Party suffers from an abundance of riches” and that a way has been found for all to get some debate time.
“Is the arrangement perfect? No. It is, however, the most inclusive setup in history,” he wrote.
Fox News has yet to identify the five polls to be considered in choosing the top 10. A flood of new polls are expected in coming days as news and polling organizations seek to have a say in the process.
The identities of the top 10 are to be released publicly late on Tuesday afternoon.
The most recent Reuters-Ipsos poll identified the bottom seven as Texas Senator Ted Cruz, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Fiorina, former New York Governor George Pataki, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.
The survey was done before former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore entered the race on Wednesday, becoming the 17th. He is among the low-polling Republicans.
Other polls have Cruz with enough support to gain entry to the debate and that former Texas Governor Rick Perry would miss the cut.
Fiorina said whatever happens, she will fight on. She noted that previous presidents like Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan had been written off at early stages of their candidacies.
Those in danger of being cut are trying to raise their visibility enough to push their poll numbers higher. Many are doing TV interviews to make their case.
“You only need a bump of a couple of points and you get in. That’s the absurdity of this thing,” said Larry Sabato, political analyst at the University of Virginia.
Reporting By Steve Holland; editing by Stuart Grudgings and Bernard Orr