Fox News delivered yet another blow to the presidential hopes of those Republican candidates polling relatively poorly ahead of the first televised presidential debate. Those six candidates who do not make the top 10 in the most recent national surveys will fail to qualify for the prime time debate. They will have their own separate and decidedly unequal contest. On Tuesday, Fox News revealed that the debate of second-tier Republican presidential prospects would occur in the late afternoon on Thursday, August 6, giving more viewers a chance to watch, but it would also be truncated from 90 to just 60 minutes. But fret not, also-rans; yours could end up being the debate to watch.

It’s unlikely that a debate broadcast at 5 p.m. ET featuring six candidates, none of whom are drawing more than 2 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of polls, will draw as many viewers as the prime-time debate later that evening. From Ted Cruz to Marco Rubio, from Jeb Bush to Scott Walker, and, of course, Donald Trump, the debate promises to be a slugfest. It is no stretch to suggest that this debate will be the most anticipated political event of the summer. But if Trump’s rambling Dadaist speech in South Carolina on Tuesday is any evidence, Trump will devour much of the attention and provide the press with all the ratings-generating mindless mud-slinging they could want. It will be a spectacle. While the GOP candidates who emerge from that debate will benefit from having their sharper edges softened by standing alongside Trump, the process will tarnish the image of the party they are vying to lead.

By contrast, the second-tier debate promises to be a far less entertaining event and, as a happy byproduct, a vastly more enlightening one. Unless the political winds shift rather dramatically in the next month, an outcome that is entirely possible as more and more peripheral Republican primary voters begin to tune into the race, the runner-up debate stage will consist of six talented and accomplished political actors: Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Ohio Governor John Kasich, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, and former New York Governor George Pataki. None of these candidates has exactly lit a fire under Republican primary voters, but each of these candidates are credentialed enough to deserve the party’s nomination.

What’s more, the debate format eliminates the incentive for these candidates to punch wildly upward at the Republicans who are performing better in the polls. While it’s likely to expect the debate participants to make reference to those Republican candidates who will be battling it out later that evening, it would be wasted effort if any of these debaters did not use their fleeting hour before a national audience to make a positive case for themselves. And each candidate has a positive case to make; one unique to themselves and often radically divergent from their fellow second-tier candidates.

Santorum performed better than any other candidate running for the party’s nomination in 2012, and his socially conservative views are and are not well represented in the current crop of leading candidates. Jindal, too, could make a claim to represent the socially conservative wing of the party, but his compelling personal story has the potential to appeal to marginal general election voters who would otherwise not give the GOP a second glance. Fiorina has proven especially adept on the campaign trail, and polls suggest her rising favorability rating among Republicans provides her with the most room for her support to grow. Kasich has adopted the Jon Huntsman approach to winning the nomination. He will advocate for a style of compassionate conservatism that might have fallen out of favor, but which also last won the GOP the White House. Graham will undoubtedly advocate for a robust approach to foreign affairs and will devote much of his focus to the myriad challenges facing America overseas. Pataki, a three-term governor of one of the bluest states in the nation, can tout his ability to work with the opposition party in order to generate consensus for conservative reforms. Should fortunes shift, one or two of these candidates might be replaced with the likes of a Texas Governor Rick Perry or a New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, which would make this debate even more of a must-see moment in the 2016 campaign.

There is a reason each of these candidates has failed to capture the imaginations of the Republican electorate – the field is too crowded, too accomplished, too dynamic. The second string of debate participants would be foolish to waste this moment of earned media attention flailing impotently at the Republicans polling at or near the top. In contrast to the prime time debate that, if the egotist leading the pack has his way, will fast devolve into a food fight, the second-tier debate could turn out to be a clarifying and policy-oriented affair. By virtue of its novelty, that debate will draw substantially more viewers than is warranted by virtue of the participants’ support in the polls. There is an opportunity here for some of these candidates to jump out of the also-ran pack and make a name for themselves with GOP primary voters.

It’s counterintuitive, but the second-tier debate may be the one to watch and the one that has the most effect on the trajectory of the race.

 

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