When the top 10 Republican presidential contenders take the stage at 9 p.m. in Cleveland, at least three of their rivals will be a few blocks away commiserating over being excluded from the contest.
Seven candidates didn’t make the cut to participate in the primetime debate, including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who will be dining together at a nearby restaurant and may not even watch the main event.
Perry’s staff reserved space at an undisclosed restaurant, various aides to campaigns said, and invited all seven candidates. Aides said it wasn’t clear whether the restaurant had a television.
Relegated to a 5 p.m. “happy hour debate,” those on the undercard didn’t shy away from criticizing the Republican National Committee and Fox News, which organized the debate.
“The RNC is screwed up,” Graham told a gaggle of reporters as he was holding court in the “spin room” after the undercard debate.
“I don’t like the fact that I was not on the stage with the other people who will be on the stage,” former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who entered the race for the nomination last week, added. “That’s not fair to the American people. I don’t think it was fair. I think that the RNC was behind a lot of this, and they are wrong.”
The national party took control of the debates process last year, but left the debate qualifications up to the network, which GOP candidates are wary of criticizing. Fox took the top 10 candidates in national polling for the 9 p.m. debate.
“I don’t worry much about something I can’t do anything about,” former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said. “I couldn’t do anything about the rules,” She added she wouldn’t alter her campaign strategy in an effort to make the second debate’s main stage next month, but would stay focused on the early states.
Perry aides, confident with their candidates’ performance, said they were happy their candidate was able to take center-stage and make his positions on immigration known to the American people.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is considering attending the dinner, but told TIME he first has to call his daughter to ask how her first day of high school went, “and make sure she didn’t talk to any boys.”
Gilmore won’t even be in town — he told TIME he’s flying home to Virginia tonight to prepare for a family vacation to Europe starting Friday.
“I’ll probably watch it on TV, just like other Americans,” Fiorina told reporters in the spin room. While invited to the dinner organized by Perry, she’ll be watching with campaign staff instead.