When the curtain comes up on the first Republican primary debate Thursday night, Donald Trump will be standing center stage – while seven other GOP candidates will be stuck waiting in the wings.
While an unprecedented 17 candidates are running for the GOP presidential nomination, Fox News has no intention of packing 17 podiums across the debate stage in Cleveland on Aug. 6. Instead, 52 hours before the debate, the network will take an average of the last five national polls and restrict its main event to the 10 most popular candidates. Those who fall outside the top 10 will be invited to participate in a Fox News forum, at 5 p.m. Thursday.
Related: Trump surges in new poll
The network will arrange the top 10 contenders by their level of support, with the most popular candidates at center-stage. On Sunday morning, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was the latest to place Trump at the head of the pack, virtually guaranteeing his place in the spotlight at next week’s debate.
“I’m not a debater, I’ve never been on a stage debating,” Trump told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” before conceding, “I guess my whole life has been a debate in one way.”
With Trump’s years of television experience and talent for delivering outrageous insults, some competing campaigns have expressed anxiety over how to handle the reality star – one adviser to Ohio Gov. John Kasich described the challenge in a tweet: “Imagine a NASCAR driver mentally preparing for a race knowing one of the drivers will be drunk. That’s what prepping for this debate is like.”
But on “Meet the Press,” Trump insisted that while he would always “counter-punch,” he didn’t plan to attack anyone at Thursday’s debate unless he was attacked first.
“I think I’m a nice person. I really do. And I think that’s why my numbers always go up as they get to know me better,” Trump said.
Minutes later though, Trump made an implicit attack on his competitors’ authenticity.
“I don’t have pollsters,” Trump said. “I don’t want to be unreal. I want to be me. We have enough of that, of pollsters telling politicians what to say.”
Republican National Committee Chairmen Reince Priebus agreed that Trump speaks his own mind - while attempting to downplay poll numbers that show a majority of Americans believe “the Donald” is hurting the GOP’s image.
“I think it is fair to say that Donald Trump speaks for Donald Trump,” Priebus said. “And so no, I don’t think it has anything to do with the Republican party.”
As of Sunday morning, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina – the field’s only female candidate – are all on the outside looking in.
Some of Trump’s lowest-polling rivals took to the other Sunday shows, trying to raise their profiles ahead of the last rounds of national polling.
“I’m confident I’ll be there on Thursday night,” Christie said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
At the moment, Christie is on track for a spot at the far end of the debate stage, polling in ninth place in an average of the last five national polls, with 3.2%.
Christie took aim at Trump at several points in his appearance, likening the real-estate mogul’s campaign to that of pizza magnate Herman Cain, who briefly enjoyed frontrunner status in the 2012 Republican primary before quickly flaming out.
“Let’s all take a deep breath,” Christie said, “Anybody can do well for a month. Especially when you have talent and personality, and Donald has both those things.”
Gov. Kasich, who currently holds the tenth and final ticket to the main stage debate, decided to take a gentler approach to Trump on “Fox News Sunday.” Asked to comment on the frontrunner’s campaign, Kasich replied, “I have enough to do to get my message out to people.”
“People ask questions and want answers,” Kasich added. “They want to hear about experience and they want to hear about your record.”
While every candidate is guaranteed some air time Thursday night, no one wants to compete in a consolation debate. For low-polling candidates in particular, Thursday’s debate marks a crucial opportunity to introduce themselves to a national audience at no cost to their campaign coffers. That’s led some candidates to protest the debate’s rules, while others have taken Trump’s cue and sought to increase their profile through controversial rhetoric.
“These national polls are irrelevant,” former 2016 Republican presidential runner-up Rick Santorum told ABC’s “This Week,” on Sunday. “I was at one percent four years ago and ended up winning 11 states, four million votes, won the Iowa caucuses.”
Santorum is currently polling outside the top 10 in national polls.
Meanwhile, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee focused his outrage at President Obama and Planned Parenthood this week, rather than on the rules of Thursday’s debate – and did so with headline-generating vitriol.
At present, Huckabee lays claim to sixth place in national polling, and boosted his national profile this past week, when he claimed that Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran would effectively “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”
Huckabee received widespread criticism for his use of Holocaust imagery, but refused to back down on the comments. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frequently invoked the threat of a second Holocaust in his own criticism of the agreement.
Huckabee also ratcheted up his rhetoric on the issue of abortion this week, a fact that Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz noted on “Meet the Press.”
“You’ve got their frontrunner, who has deemed Mexicans rapists, you had a presidential candidate Mike Huckabee this week actually not rule out that he’d used federal troops to stop abortion,” Schultz said. “So the contrast, whether it’s Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, Hillary Clinton, any of that contrast between our candidates and theirs is very clear. And the American people eventually choose our nominee as president.”