Thanks to new qualifying criteria, several of these candidates might not appear on stage during the next GOP debate.John Locher / Reuters

Republican primary contestants just got an unwelcome early Christmas gift.

Fox Business Network, which is slated to host the first debate of the new year, announced its qualifying rules this week for the January 14 contest. The stricter criteria could leave as few as six GOP contenders on the main stage. The network itself is intervening in the unwieldy contest in a way unseen thus far in the primary.

Until now, the networks had used relatively similar criteria to evaluate which contestants should make the main stage, and which would be relegated to the undercard debate. For Fox Business’s last debate, organizers considered just four national polls, and any candidate who averaged a tiny 2.5 percent or higher made the primetime cut. CNN’s debate just two weeks ago allowed for candidates polling 3.5 percent or higher nationally, or 4 percent or higher in Iowa or New Hampshire, to merit the main stage.

But the way Fox Business has designed its new rules, up to three fewer candidates could compete than at the last Republican debate. It’s as if network officials decided they needed to get serious in the last month of competition before the Iowa caucuses, and designed criteria to whittle down the field. They’re not showing the same kind of inclusiveness CNN did when it bucked its own rules to let low-polling Rand Paul into the last primetime contest.

It’s not yet known precisely which polls Fox Business will use to evaluate the candidates. But a synthesis of recent surveys by RealClearPolitics could provide some insight: According to their numbers, candidates like Paul, John Kasich, and Carly Fiorina might not make the primetime cut.

Paul pushed back on the new parameters Wednesday, and said he wouldn’t compete in any undercard debate.

“I’ve got 800 precinct chairmen in Iowa. I’ve got a 100 people on the ground working for me. I’ve raised $25 million. I’m not gonna let any network or anybody tell me we’re not a first-tier campaign,” he said in a radio interview. “If you tell a campaign with three weeks to go that they’re in the second tier, you destroy the campaign. This isn’t the job of the media to pick who wins. The voters ought to get a chance.”

CNN reports that the primetime debate could hypothetically have more than six candidates, depending on “where things stand” in the new year.

The contenders have three ways to qualify for the primetime contest. They must place in the top six in an average of the five most recent national polls; or they must place in the top five in Iowa or New Hampshire, after averaging the five most recent polls in each state. For the undercard contest, contenders need at least 1 percent support in one of the five national polls Fox Business is evaluating to make it in.  

The network says it will examine polling data released before January 11. It will only look at polls designed by “major nationally and state recognized organizations that use standard methodological techniques.” The last time the network hosted a debate, it evaluated four national polls: The Wall Street Journal/NBC News, Investor’s Business Daily/TIPP, Fox News, and Quinnipiac University.   

For now, candidates and their campaigns will have to sweat out the rest of the holiday season. Fox Business likely won’t give out specifics on which polls it’s using until just before debate night.

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