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Donald Trump gets advantage with crowded debate stage

Lecterns are marked for Donald Trump and Rick Santorum for separate debates today at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas.

New York Times

Lecterns are marked for Donald Trump and Rick Santorum for separate debates today at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas.

When it comes tonight's GOP presidential debates, it's the more candidates, the merrier as far as Republican front-runner Donald Trump is concerned.

With the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses just six weeks away, there's a baker's dozen of active candidates still in the race and all are expected to be on the stage for one of the two debates at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas.

For Trump, the businessman and former reality TV host who has held the top spot in the Republican polls almost since he announced his candidacy in June, it's all about the numbers. His 35 percent support in the latest New York Times/CBS poll gives him a huge lead when there are a dozen other candidates splitting up the remaining 65 percent of GOP voters.

But if the field gets trimmed to two or three candidates, that 35 percent becomes a far less formidable number.

"Trump has a rock-solid 25 percent base, and there's nothing better for him than to have more candidates visible and in the ring,'' said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California. "But as people drop out, the arithmetic gets bad.''

Tonight's 8:30 p.m. main event is likely to do little to cull the GOP field. While there had been rumors that CNN, the debate's sponsor, might tighten entry requirements to put fewer people on the main stage, that didn't happen.

Not only will the featured debate include every candidate with an average of 3.5 percent in selected national polls since Oct. 29, but also those with support at 4 percent or better in Iowa or New Hampshire, which holds its primary Feb. 9.

Only five candidates — Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, physician Ben Carson and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — clear that national mark, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls.

But with the state polls added, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie join the main event, with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul making the main event on the basis of a 5 percent showing in a new Iowa poll and the kindness of the debate's sponsor.

"In the light of new polling released this morning and in the spirit of being as inclusive as possible, CNN has decided to include Sen. Rand Paul in the prime-time debate,'' a CNN spokeswoman said Sunday.

With the bar for the second-tier debate set at an embarrassingly low 1 percent support in any combination of four national, Iowa or New Hampshire polls, the 3 p.m. event will include the foursome of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki.

After the Dec. 2 ISIS-inspired massacre of 14 people in San Bernardino, there's little doubt the debates will focus on national security, foreign affairs and immigration.

Donald Trump gets advantage with crowded debate stage 12/14/15 [Last modified: Monday, December 14, 2015 9:36pm]
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