NEWARK, N.J. — Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee have been bumped from the main stage at next week's GOP presidential debate, while George Pataki and Lindsey Graham have been cut from the lineup altogether.
Debate sponsor Fox Business Network announced the moves Thursday evening, dealing a major blow to all four candidates, particularly Christie, the New Jersey governor, and Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, as they struggled to stand out in the crowded Republican field amid signs of momentum in states where the first primary contests will be held.
The decision underscores concerns about the pivotal role that national opinion surveys have been playing in shaping the contest for the GOP nomination. Statistically, pollsters say, there is no significant difference between candidates lumped together near the bottom of the pack in national polls, which often have a margin of error of 3 percentage points or more.
"I tell people, 'Ignore the national polls and just follow those early states,' " said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who argues that early opinion surveys are notoriously unreliable. "Except that now national polls drive the debates, and debates drive the polling."
According to debate criteria issued by Fox Business, candidates must score 2.5 percent or higher in an average of the four most recent major polls conducted through Wednesday to be featured in the prime-time debate. They must hit the 1 percent mark to qualify for an undercard debate airing before the main event.
As a result of the new standards, the prime-time affair will feature eight candidates.
The prime-time lineup: businessman Donald Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former technology executive Carly Fiorina, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The undercard event features: Christie, Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Pataki, the former New York governor, and Graham, a South Carolina senator, already faced a tough road to the GOP nomination. Their omission from the undercard debates will make it even harder for them to convince voters that they have a viable path to the nomination.