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GOP Candidates Scramble To Secure One Of 10 Spots On Debate Stage


Once upon a time, a candidate could make the case that polls don't matter this early in the presidential race. Well, not this year, and not for Republicans. Fox News will hold the first formal debate of the 2016 presidential season next week. And out of 16 candidates, just 10 will actually be on stage. That's because who's in and who's out will be decided by national polls. And our national political correspondent Don Gonyea says this has set off a political scramble on the campaign trail. Now, Don, first of all, the polls - I thought we weren't supposed to be paying attention this early.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: We're not paying attention to them in terms of what do they mean in a month or three months or on election day in Iowa and New Hampshire, but they have to figure out a way to winnow the field for this debate. They can't have 16 people up there. The organizers have decided that 10 would be OK, so the top 10 in the polls - an average of national polls - make the cut, and here we are. Donald Trump is the leader at this point. He's up 18-and-a-half percent. The others in the top tier, meaning double digits, are former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.

CORNISH: So who's on the bubble? Who's in the back of the pack?

GONYEA: Well, if the field were announced today, barely making it in in the nine and 10 slots would be New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Ohio governor John Kasich. But take Kasich. He just announced his campaign six days ago, and he had a very busy and, by all accounts, pretty good week in New Hampshire. He took a bump up in the polls in New Hampshire. He's been spending money. His super PAC has on ads so people get to know him. He was at, like, 1.7, 1.8 percent. He's up to 2.2 percent - a miniscule jump, except - guess what? - if that holds, it looks like it's enough to get him into the debate. So those are the kind of tiny, little margins we're talking about here.

CORNISH: But back to Trump, right? This is why we're having this conversation. He's set the tone with his rhetoric, and some people are saying he's goading fellow candidates into being outrageous.

GONYEA: Yeah. It's interesting because his comments have not hurt him in the polling. And it sends a signal to the other candidates that you have to do something big to get attention. It let's Trump get all the coverage, so you've literally got to make some noise.

CORNISH: Who's taking the bait?

GONYEA: Well, making noise - Kentucky senator Rand Paul. He put out a web video last week where you see him taking a chainsaw to the tax code.


GONYEA: ...Along with Jimi Hendrix playing...

CORNISH: Yeah, subtle symbolism.

GONYEA: ...Playing the national anthem there. And then take Senator Lindsey Graham. He is at the very bottom of the polls - not even 1 percent. He puts out a web ad where he destroys his cell phone in all kinds of creative ways, responding directly to Trump, who famously had given out Sen. Graham's cell phone number at a previous press event.

CORNISH: But if you're trying to get attention, I assume there is a risk you could go too far.

GONYEA: Well, take the case of Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor. He's running. He's kind of in the middle of the pack and will likely be on that debate stage. But he was on Breitbart News, a conservative website and radio show, over the weekend, and listen to what he said about President Obama and the Iran nuclear deal.


MIKE HUCKABEE: He's so naive. He would trust the Iranians, and he would take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven.

GONYEA: There's been a lot of very strong reaction to that statement, obviously. And it's not clear if Huckabee was, you know, reacting to things that Trump has said and trying to be kind of similarly provocative or if he was just responding to a question. But it is very much of a piece with what we've been seeing.

CORNISH: So is this just the chaos that comes with this big field, or are we going to see things sober up as the race narrows?

GONYEA: All of these campaigns are different, and this one is different, certainly. It's hard to know what normal is, even right now, in terms of whether or not it will settle down. And don't look for the field to be winnowed down anytime soon.

CORNISH: That's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea. Don, thanks so much.

GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.