Say Goodbye to the GOP's Undercard Debate?

The Republican National Committee is waiting to see how many candidates drop out before committing to the same format in October.

Mario Anzuoni / AP

Thought 11 was too many? The Republican debate stage could get even more crowded when the party’s presidential hopefuls meet again at the end of October.

The Republican National Committee is not ready to commit to having an undercard debate the next time around, spokesman Sean Spicer said on Thursday. RNC officials will be watching the race unfold over the next few weeks to see if any candidates drop out, and how many. But unless there’s a mass exodus of longshots, the party would be confronting the possibility of trying to fit a dozen or more candidates on stage for the October 28 debate in Boulder, Colorado, which will air on CNBC.

“We’ll have to make a decision based on the number of candidates that are in or out,” Spicer said by phone on Thursday. “Before we start deciding what the format is, you have to see how many candidates are going to be there.”

The total number of candidates in the two debates on Wednesday—18— was two fewer than the number who gathered in Cleveland in August. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry dropped out just a week ago, while Jim Gilmore, the one-time Virginia governor, was excluded for polling below 1 percent. Many of the lagging candidates may be running out of money and are waiting to see if their performances on Wednesday will be rewarded with a bump either in fund-raising or poll numbers.

Rand Paul and Scott Walker have seen their standing slip significantly over the summer, and the Washington Post reported Thursday that Walker’s donors are pushing for a shake-up in his campaign. The four candidates in Wednesday’s Happy Hour debate—Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki—have all struggled to gain traction, yet the mismatched number participants in the two debates meant that they got significantly more individual air time than many of the candidates in the prime-time event. (Spicer said another hour was added to the later debate to adjust for that discrepancy.)

While the host network decides which candidates to invite, the RNC must sanction a second debate if there are too many contenders for one stage. Conceivably, the party and CNBC could tweak the criteria for the main debate so that there are an even number of candidates in each round—say, seven and seven, or eight and eight. Or with the first primaries drawing closer, they could raise the bar entirely and limit the debate to one stage with fewer candidates.

Their decision will have significant ramifications: Under CNN’s initial guidelines, Carly Fiorina wouldn't even have been in the prime-time debate on Wednesday. Now after a strong performance, she is poised to join the top tier of GOP candidates. Whichever way the RNC goes, there likely will be howls of complaint from some campaigns. But the stakes for the next month of campaigning have only gotten higher.