Who Will Out-Trump Donald Trump at the Republican Presidential Debate? (And Who Didn't Even Make the Cut?)

The GOP debate is anyone's game

Photo: Denis Poroy/AP; Andrew H. Walker/Getty; Ron Sachs/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP; Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

It’s official: Donald Trump will be front and center in the first Republican presidential debate on Thursday.

The billionaire reality star is one of 10 candidates who made the cut when Fox News announced the debate lineup Tuesday night. Big names like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will also be there, along with lesser-known candidates like retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Just as notable, however, is the list of major Republican figures who did not get the invite. With such a broad field – at least 16 major candidates running for the GOP nomination – some big names didn’t make the cut. These include former tech executive Carly Fiorina, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who was a front-runner for the nomination in 2012.

Fox News relied on an average of five national polls to set the lineups for the prime-time debate and the earlier forum, the network said. The full list of candidates invited to the debate is: Trump, Bush, Walker, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Carson, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Paul, Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Ahead of the first debate, the candidates have been trying their darndest to one-up each other with headline-grabbing clips and comments in recent weeks, with Huckabee likening President Obama‘s nuclear deal with Iran to the Holocaust, Ted Cruz eating "machine-gun bacon" off a gun barrel, Lindsey Graham putting his cell phone in a blender, and Rand Paul tossing the tax code into a wood chipper.

These are things that are literally happening, and their proximity to the upcoming GOP debate is likely not a coincidence.

These days, celebrity status seems to be a prerequisite for being the leader of the free world. Obama has become the first “viral president,” with highlights including a Between Two Ferns interview, a BuzzFeed video promoting Obamacare (complete with proof of selfie-stick mastery), and fist bumps with "superheroes" and custodians alike.

The public eats up these social media morsels, and it shows in the polls. Obama’s approval rating hit a two-year high after he sang "Amazing Grace" on national television at the funeral of slain Charleston Rev. Clementa Pinckney. (It was also the same week the Supreme Court handed down historic decisions on gay marriage and the Affordable Care Act.)

Obama’s “celebrity president” shoes are big, and Trump – already a soundbite-generating TV personality before he even entered the race – seems to be trying every trick in the book to fill them out, whether he’s calling a lawyer “disgusting” for pumping breast milk, questioning whether John McCain is a “war hero,” or labeling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and criminals.

But for all the outrage he’s drawn and controversy he’s courted, Trump’s campaign strategy seems to be working. Another poll published Monday, by Monmouth University, found Trump not merely ahead of his opponents but with a two-to-one advantage over his nearest rivals.

All his attention-seeking helped secure him a spot on the debate stage, leaving many of his less outspoken competitors, like Graham and the Ricks (Santorum and Perry), out in the cold.

Graham recently blasted the Republican National Committee for basing its qualification process for the debate on national polling averages, saying there’s “no good reason” why he shouldn’t be allowed some mic time.

“I think it sucks,” he said during a July 23 interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

Graham, whose personal phone number became public knowledge after Trump shared it during a speech in South Carolina, responded by requesting that the real estate mogul “stop being a jackass.” But it may have been more of a genuine plea than an attempt to out-Trump Trump.

“If my numbers go up just because I call Donald Trump a jackass, that’s not why I want to rise in the polls,” Graham said on Morning Joe. “The bottom line is, I think the criteria in July of 2015 makes no sense. You’re testing celebrity and name ID.”

Graham wasn’t above referencing the Monica Lewinsky scandal to attack Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton‘s credibility, however.

“I am fluent in Clinton-speak,” he said at the Voters First Forum in New Hampshire on Monday, according to the Huffington Post. “When Bill says he didn’t have sex with that woman, he did. When [Hillary Clinton] tells us: ‘Trust me, you have all the emails you need,’ we haven’t even scratched the surface.”

President Obama recently blasted the rhetoric of GOP leaders and presidential candidates, calling it all “ridiculous if it weren’t so sad.”

Responding to Huckabee’s Holocaust comparison, Obama said, “When you get rhetoric like this, maybe it gets attention and maybe this is just an effort to push Mr. Trump out of the headlines, but it’s not the kind of leadership that is needed for America right now.”

“In 18 months, I’m turning over the keys [to the White House],” he added. “I want to make sure I’m turning over the keys to somebody who is serious about the serious problems the country faces and the world faces.”

One thing’s for sure: With only one set of keys on the table, the Republican debate is going to be quite a show; watch it on Fox News at 9 p.m. ET Thursday.

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