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2016 Republicans use Trump, TV to make debate cut

July 26, 2015

AMES, Iowa (AP) — With the first debate of the Republican presidential campaign approaching, the party’s 16 White House hopefuls are trying everything they can to improve their polling position. A candidate needs to place in the top 10 in an average of national polls to meet the criteria Fox News Channel has set to take the stage Aug. 6 in Cleveland.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is attacking Donald Trump’s credibility and branding the billionaire businessman “a cancer on conservatism.” Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative stalwart, popped up on a TV program popular with liberals. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham set his cellphone on fire.

Those who miss the cut for the debate risk being overlooked by voters and financial backers heading into the critical fall stretch before the state-by-state nominating contests start early in 2016.

“If you’re not on the stage you’re irrelevant, you don’t matter,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “Unless you have some serious ad dollars, it’s not a glass ceiling. It’s a concrete ceiling.”

At of this past week, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki, Santorum and Graham were outside the top 10. Others close to the edge include Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Perry.

That would relegate them to a second-tier debate, only an hour-long airing before the prime-time event.

“In your heart of hearts, you want to see me debate Hillary Clinton,” Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican contest, said with a grin, drawing applause Thursday from more than 100 people at a country club in Ames, Iowa, the state whose caucuses lead off the nominating contests.

“I would of course love to be on the debate stage, but we’re going to keep going with or without it,” she told reporters afterward. “The boys are going to fight, and I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.”

One guaranteed participant is Trump, despite incendiary comments about Mexican immigrants and Arizona Sen. John McCain’s war record. Trump’s remarks have drawn a backlash in a party trying to expand its support among the growing Latino voting bloc and in which veterans are an influential constituency.

Boring in on Trump is one approach some rivals hope will help them to break through as the debate nears. Perry unloaded on Wednesday when he called Trump’s campaign a “barking carnival act” and “toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense.”

Perry pollster Greg Strimple said the goal of the speech was part of a long-standing effort to raise his profile, not to get him in the debate. “We had long-planned a speech defending conservatism,” Strimple said. “When Donald Trump made his negative comments, it provided us the perfect comparison.”

Supporters of Perry and Jindal are buying national cable ads that could boost their poll numbers ahead of the debate. On Friday, backers of Christie announced a new ad to air on Fox News.

Graham, even further behind in polling, called Trump a “jackass” after the real estate executive said McCain was “not a war hero.” McCain served as a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War and was held for more than five years as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down. Graham then starred in a video produced by a conservative website demonstrating how to destroy a cellphone after Trump publicly disclosed Graham’s phone number during a campaign appearance in South Carolina.

Santorum spokesman Matt Benyon said Santorum’s TV appearances, including on the MSNBC cable TV show hosted by liberal commentator Rachel Maddow, were timed to take advantage of the candidate’s time in New York this past week, not to boost his poll numbers.

“Would it be great to be in the debate? Absolutely,” Benyon said. “But to change your campaign strategy to focus on one date in August is a pretty shortsighted idea.”

Republican consultant Reed Galen said candidates may have a better chance to introduce themselves to voters in the less-crowded second-tier debate than by competing with Trump and the other contenders in the main debate. Still, he understood the drive to appear in “the big show.”

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