By Sam Frizell
August 3, 2015

For months, the 2016 Republican presidential field has mushroomed to include an almost-unheard-of 17 candidates. This week, the field could finally start to narrow

The top 10 candidates based on national polling will gather in Cleveland on Thursday for the first prime time, nationally-televised debate of the campaign. In a public spectacle millions of Americans are likely to tune in to Fox News for, the 10 will lay out their cases, zing their opponents, fall prey to gaffes—and try to avoid getting sucked into The Donald Trump show.

The seven candidates whose polling numbers are too minuscule for the main event will participate in an undercard event on Fox several hours earlier, playing to a much smaller audience. And while it’s unlikely any candidates will actually drop out this week, those who don’t make the cut will be flirting with anonymity and eventual defeat.

“You know, I’ll be very happy on Tuesday when the standings come out and I’m in there,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is on the cusp of missing the cut for the premier debate, said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union. “Once you get on the stage, it’s not going to matter if you’re No. 1, No. 5 or No. 10. … I’m confident I’ll be there on Thursday night.”

In addition to the debate, 14 of the 17 GOP contenders will speak one at a time Monday night in Manchester, N.H., for a candidate forum that will be broadcast live on CSPAN and in three early-voting states. And on Friday and Saturday in Atlanta, 10 candidates are set to meet for the annual RedState gathering hosted by the influential conservative website.

The GOP debates are as much a pitfall to stumble over as they are an opportunity to shine. In November of 2011, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry famously forgot the name of the third agency he would eliminate as president, saying only “oops”—a moment that dominated the news cycle and was largely responsible for his eventual defeat in the primary. A strong performance by Mitt Romney in his second debate against President Obama in October 2012 briefly helped boost his momentum and tighten the race with the incumbent Democrat.

This year, the Fox News rules for participating in the debate make it an extremely close contest to be on the national stage. An average of the last five polls show seven of the top 10 candidates—including Ben Carson, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich—within about three percentage points of one another.

The candidates who miss the top-tier debate will be relegated to a smaller forum that will be broadcast earlier in the evening. Those who could be in the undercard event include Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and former New York Gov. George Pataki, who are all polling at about 3% or less nationally among Republicans.

With the ever-provocative Donald Trump leading the Republican field and set to be center-stage in the GOP debate, candidates are scrambling to prepare to face the real estate mogul and take a bite out of his support. Strategists are divided over the best way to approach Trump, and whether they should attack him or try to stay above the fray.

“I’m not a debater, I’ve never debated before,” Trump said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I guess my whole life has been a debate in one way but I’ve never been on a stage debating.”

Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee Chairman, has come under fire about the rules for entering the first debate, but he’s defended the guidelines—which were set by Fox News, not the party—and pointed to the fact that there are basically two debates.

“All seventeen candidates,” Priebus said on Meet the Press, “are going to be participating in debate night. So everyone’s going to have an opportunity, and I think that’s wonderful for our party.”

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