In a crowded race for the Republican nomination that has stirred up media frenzy and endless punditry, the first cruel cut is coming: Picking the top 10 who will make it to Fox's prime-time debate on Aug. 6, the first of at least 11 debates planned between now and next spring when the race will really be underway.
With 16 presidential hopefuls already declared, jockeying for position is fierce. At stake: national television exposure, getting to trade jibes with the front-runners and, with a good performance, a chance to attract money and campaign talent for the stretch run.
Fox, the right-leaning news channel and co-sponsor of the Aug. 6 debate in Cleveland says the top 10 candidates in an average of five national polls will make the cut. Everyone else gets relegated to a late-afternoon forum, in effect the undercard for the main event and one that will attract far fewer viewers.
With few Americans yet showing any real interest in the presidential election, polls this early often reflect little more than name recognition.
With the bombastic property magnate Donald Trump and former Florida governor Jeb Bush currently the early front-runners – and the only two polling regularly in double digits – the declared Republican field falls quickly away and a messy scramble for the bottom spots in the top 10 is shaping up.
Fox hasn't said which polls it will use.
If the deadline were today as originally expected – instead of being pushed back to Aug. 4 – the freshly-announced Ohio Governor John Kasich, who some see as a potential top candidate once the mavericks and fringe hopefuls fall away during next year's primaries, would miss the Fox debate cut.
So, too, would Texas Governor Rick Perry. Both are currently polling just under two per cent in all of the recent national polls.
Less than a single percentage point ahead and thus well within the margin of error are New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former senator Rick Santorum, both of whom would just make the cut.
Yet some of the widely-cited polls are so small – fewer than 400 people – that a single vote can leap-frog the ranking.
Predictably, some candidates are complaining.
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham – currently way back among the also-rans with less than a single percentage point of support in most polls – calls the Fox cull "a dumb way to weed out the field."
Among the other casualties would be Carly Fiorina, the only woman currently in the Republican race.
Yet no better way to cut has emerged, and putting all 16 on stage at the same time has been deemed too cumbersome.
One proposed alternative would be to shift the cut from top 10 to everyone who polls more than two per cent. That would likely increase the field for the main debate to 11 or 12.
For those in the third to eighth slots – currently Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, all of whom are regularly polling more than five per cent – a more welcome alternative would be a tougher cut, which would limit the debate to eight.