Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee failed to make the cut for the main stage at next week’s Fox Business Network/Wall Street Journal debate, a particularly harsh blow for the New Jersey governor who has struggled to gain traction in the presidential race after being seen as a rising GOP star in 2012.
The two Republican candidates failed to meet the 2.5 percent average polling threshold, meaning they’ll both be bumped to a 6 p.m. undercard debate on Tuesday, appearing alongside former Sen. Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Christie and Huckabee weren’t the only ones to get bad news in the Fox Business lineup. Sen. Lindsey Graham, former New York Gov. George Pataki, and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore failed to register enough in four recent national polls to participate in the Nov. 10 event at all. They needed to get just 1 percent support in one of those polls. It will be Graham and Pataki’s first time not getting to participate.
Graham’s campaign fired off a statement, blasting the polling used to determine the lineup and saying they are “sincerely disappointed” in Fox Business and Wall Street Journal. “In the end, the biggest loser tonight is the American people and the Republican Presidential primary process that has been hijacked by news outlets,” Graham’s campaign manager Christian Ferry said in a statement.
Huckabee’s downgrade was a surprise, and was driven by his poor standing in the Investor’s Business Daily/TIPP poll included in the average of four recent national polls used to determine the lineup. That poll is little known and considered less transparent than other surveys. Huckabee tweeted his frustration, saying “I’m happy to debate anyone, anywhere, anytime.” (Huckabee also scored a damaging 1 percent in the better known Quinnipiac University poll conducted more recently.)
He continued in a second tweet, “We are months away from actual votes being cast and neither the pundits nor the press will decide this election, the people will.”
But it’s perhaps the most dramatic reversal of political fortunes for Christie, who was aggressively drafted for the 2012 presidential race, when he was seen as a refreshing, straight-talking alternative to the relatively stiff Mitt Romney.
This time around Christie has been overshadowed by the bombastic overtures of Donald Trump and has struggled to connect with voters yearning for a political outsider. At the beginning of the year, Christie boasted a polling average above 11 percent, second only to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, but has seen his numbers consistently slip since then.
Christie brushed off the development on Thursday evening, tweeting, “It doesn’t matter the stage, give me a podium and I’ll be there to talk about real issues like this: http://christiene.ws/1Nvu40o #BringItOn.” The tweet echoed the sentiment he expressed earlier on Thursday, when he said he wasn’t overly concerned about the prospect of being downgraded to the undercard stage.
“The bottom line is you need to be on a stage and debating. And so I will be on a stage and debating one way or the other, wherever they put me. You put one in the middle of the square in Manchester, I’ll do it there,” Christie said on Fox News’ “America’s Newsroom” on Thursday morning. “I’m looking forward to being in the debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday.”
The governor’s supporters are also attempting to shrug off the blow. They maintain that his relatively strong performance in the most recent debate, combined with rising favorabilities in Iowa and New Hampshire as well as a powerful viral video of him talking about drug addiction, insulated him from any kind of fallout.
“It doesn’t change one thing for me,” Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot and a megadonor for Christie, told POLITICO on Thursday afternoon, before the lineup became official.
“What are the consequences? Well, you look at last week. Clearly he emerged in terms of the people that watched it as one of the strong guys of the debate. And I think he’ll continue to be that way and do that,” Langone said.
Langone stressed that Christie just needs to “hang in there” as more candidates drop out.
Trump and Ben Carson will be standing at center stage at the 9 p.m. main stage event. To Trump’s right will be Sen. Marco Rubio, then Bush, and then Ohio Gov. John Kasich. To Carson’s left will be Sen. Ted Cruz, then Carly Fiorina, and then Sen. Rand Paul.
The undercard debate will air at 6 p.m., and will be moderated by Fox Business’ Sandra Smith, Trish Regan and Wall Street Journal Washington Bureau Chief Gerald Seib. The main-stage debate will be moderated by Fox Business’ Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo, along with Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Gerard Baker.
The GOP debates have created much controversy – and heartburn – for the large and unruly Republican field. Some of the candidates have accused the Republican National Committee of trying to use the debates to winnow the number of candidates, and contenders on the undercard stage have complained about the poor optics of the event.
Frustrations boiled over at last week’s CNBC debate, when the campaigns laid into the network over “gotcha” questions not focused on economics and designed to make the candidates look bad. An effort by the campaigns to show a united front and wrest control from the RNC and networks collapsed earlier this week.
Fox Business has sought to capitalize on the backlash, running a TV ad mocking the CNBC moderators.
“CNBC never asked the real questions, never covered real issues,” Fox’s commercial says. “That’s why, on Nov. 10, the real debate about our economy and our future is only on Fox Business Network.”
Bill Shine, senior executive vice president of programming for Fox, said in a statement Thursday evening, “FOX Business Network is proud to announce the lineup for the fourth Republican Presidential Debates and we look forward to discussing the important business and economic issues facing the country. We would like to thank the candidates, the city of Milwaukee and the Republican National Committee, and our partner the Wall Street Journal, for helping to organize and host these very important debates.”
Pataki, like Graham, had harsh words about being left out. “Running for the most important leadership position in the world shouldn’t be reduced to the level of ‘American Idol’ or ‘Survivor.’ The voters should decide our next president – not networks driven by ratings or national polls that are statistically irrelevant,” he said in a statement.
And Bush tweeted his support for Graham: “Disagree with debate rules that prevent @Grahamblog’s voice from being heard – his foreign policy message is an important one in particular.”
Christie next week could breathe more life into the undercard debate, which has been largely dominated by Graham in the past two debates. While Graham has landed some zingers in the events, he hasn’t delivered such a commanding performance to get a bump in the polls, leaving him frozen out on Tuesday.
Some of Christie’s supporters say the less-crowded stage could give the governor a standout moment. And one Republican fundraiser supporting Christie, who declined to speak on the record, said the absence of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker from the GOP field and Bush’s drop in national polling are creating an opening for Christie.
“I don’t think it’s as big a deal as it would have been earlier in the cycle. He remains well positioned,” the fundraiser said. “I’m not sure that anyone on that stage will do anything that alters the terrain of the race in the first two states. And that ultimately is what this comes down to.”
Mikel Derby, a top Iowa lobbyist backing Christie, said he didn’t think it would be a net negative for him to be relegated to the undercard debate. “Even if he goes to the first debate, he’s going to get a lot more time, which is a lot more time for him to tell his story,” Derby said on Thursday afternoon before the news became official.
He also grumbled that a Christie fall to the earlier debate would be the fault of the national polling criteria rather than the candidate himself.
“So basically he’s being punished for not being as well known in places that aren’t going to have a huge impact on this election at this point,” Derby said.