Republican candidates jockey for place in first prime-time presidential debate _lowres

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks at the Road to Majority 2015 convention in Washington on June 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

After suspending his campaign for president for four days in the aftermath of the mass shooting at a Lafayette movie theater, Gov. Bobby Jindal resumed a busy schedule of politicking Wednesday.

But he didn’t travel his well-worn routes to meet voters in Iowa, which hosts the caucuses that launch the Republican nomination process Feb. 1, or in New Hampshire, which holds its primary Feb. 9. Instead, he flew to New York City, making the TV-studio circuit to chat with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, Wolf Blitzer on CNN, and Charlie Rose, Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King on “CBS This Morning.”

Jindal’s swing through Manhattan to appear on network television would fit with a strategy to boost his standing in the national polls, which hold the key to determining which Republican candidates take the stage in prime time Thursday, when the first debates of the campaign will be broadcast on coast-to-coast TV.

But Jindal’s campaign manager, Timmy Teepell, said that’s not the thinking of the Jindal team.

“We are focused on making our case to those voters in the early states,” he wrote in an email Thursday. “Gov. Jindal’s trip to NYC to participate in various news interviews was not a departure from that strategy.”

The Des Moines Register reported last week that Jindal is planning to return to Iowa on Wednesday to meet with the Westside Conservative Club at the Iowa Machine Shed in Urbandale.

The announcement Thursday by former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore that he is running for president brought to 17 the number of current and former governors, current and former U.S. senators and other candidates with national reputations who have entered the Republican race.

To manage the unwieldy field, Fox News, the debate host, has announced it will limit its prime-time event to the candidates ranking in the top 10, including ties, in the five most recent national polls recognized by the network as of 4 p.m. Tuesday. The two-hour debate, scheduled for 8 p.m. Thursday, will be moderated by Fox News anchors Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace.

Fox News has not specified which polls it will use for its ranking, beyond declaring they “must be conducted by major, nationally recognized organizations that use standard methodological techniques.”

In the most widely recognized national surveys to date, Jindal has consistently registered outside the top 10, with scores in the low single digits. That would relegate him to a separate, one-hour debate with the others missing the cut, to be televised at 4 p.m. Thursday and moderated by “America’s Newsroom” co-hosts Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum.

In the prime-time debate, the highest-polling candidate — which, based on recent surveys, would appear to be real estate developer and reality-TV celebrity Donald Trump — will stand at the center lectern onstage, with the other candidates fanning out on either side based on their rankings, a Fox News spokeswoman said.

Each candidate will get one minute to answer questions from the moderators, with others called on for rebuttals of up to 30 seconds. Candidates mentioned by their rivals will get a chance to respond at a length to be decided by the moderators.

The late-afternoon debate is expected to follow a similar format.

Both debates will take place in Cleveland, but Teepell said Jindal hasn’t decided where he will be next week. Jindal earlier said he would participate in a forum Monday in New Hampshire with most of his rivals, according to multiple published reports. That event, to be televised at 6 p.m. on C-SPAN, won’t count as a debate because the candidates will appear one at a time, not together in a give-and-take format, the Republican National Committee said.

The Cleveland event is the first of nine debates from August to March sanctioned by the RNC, which may be hoping to avoid a repeat of the 20-event debate-o-rama of 2012.

“This schedule ensures we will have a robust discussion among our candidates while also allowing the candidates to focus their time engaging with Republican voters,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in January when the plan was announced.

A candidate participating in an unsanctioned debate will be barred from joining any later RNC-endorsed events.

Failure to make the cut for the prime-time debate Thursday could be “the kiss of death” for a candidate, said Charlie Cook, producer of the Cook Political Report, in Washington. “The chances of anybody not making that debate getting the Republican nomination are extremely remote,” Cook said.

“It’s critical to get to the adults’ table,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center of Politics at the University of Virginia. “Inevitably, if you don’t make it to the prime-time debate, many donors and activists are going to say that you’re an also-ran,” he said.

“The major issue here for Jindal or anybody else who doesn’t qualify for the debate is that they simply have a much more difficult time cutting through and getting the attention that they need in an increasingly fragmented field,” said John McGlennon, chairman of the government department at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

The second RNC-sanctioned debate will be televised live on CNN from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on Sept. 16. It will follow a two-tier format similar to the debate Thursday.

Like generals on military campaigns, candidates in election campaigns fight the current war the way they fought the last one, Cook said.

“The last war is ‘Iowa is phenomenally important,’ ” Cook said. “This war is ‘making it into the debates so you’re a contender.’

“Making it into the national debates are the first, second and third most important things you have to do,” he said. “Nobody’s going to be winning the Iowa caucuses if you don’t make the national debates.”

Teepell doesn’t see it that way.

“The hype surrounding these debates is completely disproportionate to their importance,” he said. “This race is wide open, there is a lot of time on the clock and as soon as these debates are over, they will be forgotten.”

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