CLEVELAND — Billionaire businessman Donald Trump will be front and center in the Republican Party’s leadoff presidential debate, scoring the top spot in Thursday’s prime-time faceoff where he’ll be joined by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and seven other White House hopefuls who made the campaign’s first cut.
But it’s a disappointing situation for seven other Republicans including former technology executive Carly Fiorina and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who will be relegated to a pre-debate forum and second-tier status in the party’s crowded field.
Fox News on Tuesday announced the 10 GOP candidates who will take part in the debate at 9 p.m. EDT Thursday in the crucial swing state of Ohio.
Beyond Trump, those selected among the top 10 — based on recent national polls — include Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Those who didn’t qualify for the first debate include Fiorina, the GOP’s only female presidential candidate, Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
The announcement concludes an anxiety-filled process for a Republican Party that worked aggressively to improve its debates ahead of the election season. Yet with the largest field of contenders in modern memory, organizers say something had to give to ensure the debate in Cleveland didn’t turn into a nationally televised circus.
“We never ever envisioned we’d have 17 major candidates,” said Steve Duprey, New Hampshire’s representative to the Republican National Committee who helped craft the debate plan. “There’s no perfect solution.”
Republican officials worked closely with TV executives, although the networks have the final say about which candidates will be allowed on stage for their televised events.
Fox News is the host of Thursday’s event, the first of six party-sanctioned debates before primary voting begins in February.
Republican officials were particularly concerned about Fiorina’s status, hoping she would help balance Hillary Rodham Clinton’s push to rally women to her candidacy. Trump’s recent surge in the polls was particularly damaging to Fiorina.
The reality television star’s rapid rise has surprised many Republican officials, some of whom fear his rhetoric on immigration and other divisive issues could hurt the party. In a Tuesday interview, Trump said he’s been defying expectations all his life.
“I think people are tired, they’re sick and tired of incompetent politicians,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” when asked to explain his rise.
While Trump was far and away the front-runner in the five most recent national polls that determined the debate lineup, several candidates were grouped together in the single digits, most separated by a number smaller than the margin of error.
For example, in a Monmouth University survey released Monday, Kasich was the 10th candidate with the support of 3.2 percent of voters.
But after taking the margin of error into account, Monmouth noted that Kasich’s support could be as low as 1.5 percent, while almost any of the candidates who polled lower could be that high or higher.
Monmouth found that only five candidates — Trump, Bush, Walker, Cruz and Huckabee — were definitely in the top tier of candidates, while just two –Pataki and Gilmore — would not make it into the top 10 even when margin of error was taken into account.
Some candidates looked at the polls on Tuesday, and then looked past the first debate and aimed for the second.
“This first debate is just one opportunity of many,” Amy Frederick, an aide to Fiorina, wrote to supporters. “With many more debates to come, we fully expect that Carly will soon stand on the stage and show America what real leadership looks like.”
Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Dirmann issued a challenge of sorts: “The governor will debate anyone anywhere at any time.”
Candidates have already begun to turn their attention toward Trump, considered the ultimate wildcard on the debate stage.
Asked about Trump while courting religious conservatives on Tuesday, Bush said the businessman’s rhetoric on immigrants is “wrong.” “We have a different tone and a different view,” he said.
“I respect the fact that he’s the front-runner for the Republican nomination,” Bush continued. “This is a serious thing. But I think to win and govern the right way — we have to unite rather than divide.”
Christie, in a television interview earlier in the day, called Trump his friend but suggested he’d be willing to challenge him if necessary.
“If I believe there is something that needs to be said on that stage Thursday night, I’ll say it,” Christie said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson in Washington and AP writer Eric Schelzig in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.