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The Mad Scramble to Get Off the Republican Debate Bubble

Nine candidates are competing for three slots. It’s a crazy game, and Donald Trump is the only one who really knows how to play.
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Photographer: Charles Ommanney/Getty Images

In the month before college basketball’s N.C.A.A. tournament bracket is announced, there is a mad scramble for dozens of teams to get off the bubble. Top-tier teams like Duke and Kentucky and Michigan State don’t have to worry about the bubble; they’re comfortably in the tournament. It’s the ones who are in slots 32-44, fighting for one of the tournament’s 36 at-large bids, who spend that last month in a state of constant stress and panic: The tournament is so important that if you make it, your season is vindicated, and if you don’t, it’s as if your season didn’t happen at all.

This madness, in a unique set of circumstances that may never be replicated, has extended itself to this year’s Republican primary season. There are currently 16 human beings running for the Republican nomination for president, the first time that any debate organizer would ever have to fit more than 10 people on a stage. So, Fox News and CNN, who are hosting the first two debates on Aug. 6 and Sept. 16, respectively, have designed a solution: Only 10 make the cut. Fox News is relying on five national polls—it has not yet said which polls it is using, which, considering the debate is a month away, is cutting it a bit close—to produce the 10 candidates who will grace the main stage. The main 10 will debate each other with Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Chris Wallace in Cleveland at 9 p.m.; the current plan is that the other six will participate in a “candidate forum” from 1-3 p.m., which is to say, they won’t be participating in anything at all. (There isn’t much on the planet less “prime time” than lunch hour on a summer Thursday.) At the CNN debate at the Reagan Library in September, the bottom six, assuming they have at least 1 percent in the polls, will, unless the plan is changed, be “Segment B” of the debate, which is sort of like a kids’ table, or maybe a side stage at a particularly crowded music festival.