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It's likely this issue will come up tomorrow night in Cleveland - debate night - seventeen candidates, five moderators, two debates, one network. Fox News has set the terms for tomorrow night's questioning of the Republican presidential hopefuls. And as early and overstuffed as these debates may be, NPR's David Folkenflik reports they could prove consequential.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The announcement of how the debates would work arrived last night with a flourish.
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BRET BAIER: This is a Fox News alert. I'm Bret Baier. We are coming to you tonight from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.
FOLKENFLIK: Oh, they intend to rock 'n' roll all right.
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BAIER: In the first spot, directly center stage - businessman, billionaire Donald Trump.
FOLKENFLIK: He'll be flanked by former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Let's just say that with 10 candidates, there will be a lot of flanking going on. Campaigns lobbied Fox for inclusion in that primetime debate. The network ultimately relied on five national polls to separate what it considered wheat from the chaff. One who was a former paid Fox commentator, former senator Rick Santorum, didn't even make the cut. He's relegated to a smaller debate earlier in the evening. Patrick Murray is director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, who released one of the recent polls Fox used.
PATRICK MURRAY: Getting into that first top-10 debate really sends a signal to the voters and donors as well that you are considered one of the serious contenders. And it doesn't matter whether you're in first place or tenth place in many cases.
FOLKENFLIK: Yet, Murray argues the seeming precision of national polls actually masks how uncertain the numbers are. After all, there are so many candidates. Listen to how small, Murray says, the gap could be between them.
MURRAY: Potentially five or six people could change the whole outcome of these national polls.
FOLKENFLIK: Fox left off many credible figures who, in past years, would've been automatically welcomed onstage, including a sitting senator, several former big-state governors and a former top corporate CEO. That former CEO, Carly Fiorina, put a brave face on it today on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," saying voters were still learning about her.
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CARLY FIORINA: We got a long way to go here. It's a long race, and I'll look forward to the happy hour debate.
FOLKENFLIK: That second tier will be questioned by Fox's Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum live at 5 p.m. Eastern before most people are home from work to watch. Juleanna Glover is a political and corporate strategist who has raised money for the Bush campaign.
JULEANNA GLOVER: It's certainly an opportunity for everyone who's on the 9 p.m. stage to try and distinguish themselves as a top-tier candidate. For those on the 5 p.m. stage, it's an opportunity for them to see if they can't, in some way, shape or form, find their way into the top couple paragraphs of every major news organization's write up of what happened at the debates.
FOLKENFLIK: And how do you do that?
GLOVER: You do something surprising but yet reputationally enhancing. So how do you define that? You know, we'll all know it when we see it.
FOLKENFLIK: It's hard to consider this a real debate. It's more like a mass joint appearance. But as Glover says, the Party and news organizations wanted to get a handle on the preprimary debates with firm rules. Republican strategist and donor John Jordan is supporting Scott Walker this time around. He says no one expected so many credible Republican contenders.
JOHN JORDAN: This is a very challenging format for anybody who is not going to throw bombs, to say anything extraordinary.
FOLKENFLIK: Jordan says Fox has done a good job in a tough situation, but he says the stakes aren't all that high - not yet - because only the political professionals are paying close attention.
JORDAN: This is still, in many ways, the silly season, so small things and small perceived advantages, even if - whether they're real or not, tend to take outsized import.
FOLKENFLIK: And that brings us back to the man at center stage, Donald Trump, previously the man for all silly season, who sits atop the polls. Last month, Jordan had called on his fellow Republicans to bar Trump from the debates. Now, he says, the rules are the rules. If Trump offers the usual bravado, it could make for great TV, in which case, Fox News, above all, could prove the winner. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
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