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Milwaukee GOP debate to feature smaller field, amped-up pressure

The race enters a more critical phase, as Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee are knocked off main debate stage

At long last, it will be a slightly shrunken crop of GOP contenders who will be meeting on the main stage Tuesday for the Republican presidential debate, hosted by Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal in Milwaukee.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee were knocked off after failing to average 2.5 percent in a handful of recent national polls, selected by Fox Business as the criteria for making the prime-time event and winnowing down the participants to eight.

Christie and Huckabee will be participating in the so-called undercard debate instead with perennial second-tier candidates, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

The demotion was a blow for Huckabee, who has struggled to find a constituency in the crowded 2016 race, and Christie, who only recently seemed to be reviving a flagging candidacy after a strong performance in the CNBC debate and a viral video in which he discussed the scourge of drug addiction.  Both, nonetheless, attempted to accept the news in stride.

“The bottom line is you need to be on a stage and debating. And so I will be on a stage and debating one way or the other, wherever they put me. You put one in the middle of the square in Manchester, I'll do it there,” Christie told Fox News last week shortly after the decision was announced. “I'm looking forward to being in the debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday.”

Meanwhile, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki were booted from the Milwaukee event altogether, which may sound the final death knell for both floundering candidates. Graham and Pataki were less zen after receiving the news.

“It is ironic that the only veteran in the race is going to be denied a voice the day before Veterans Day,” Graham’s campaign manager, Christian Ferry, said in a statement. “In the end, the biggest loser tonight is the American people and the Republican Presidential primary process that has been hijacked by news outlets.”

The presidential race is now entering a more urgent phase, with three months left until the first ballots are cast in the nominating contest in Iowa and the remaining candidates facing more scrutiny about their records and personal histories.

To the chagrin of Republican establishment figures, business mogul Donald Trump remains the front-runner in several national and state-level polls, seemingly impervious to attacks, gaffes, contradictory policy positions or even lackluster turns on the debate stage.

His closest rival is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has surged to the top of the field on the strength of a low-key demeanor and status as a political outsider.

In recent weeks, nonetheless, Carson has faced an escalating barrage of questions about his past. Carson’s story of growing up in poverty in inner-city Detroit, overcoming a troubled adolescence and ultimately, rising to become a world-renowned neurosurgeon are mainstays of his speeches and a central part of his appeal to voters.

But recent reports have questioned whether all of his claims are accurate. Politico reported last week that Carson appears to have exaggerated the tale of his admission to West Point Academy on a scholarship — the school does not charge students tuition, the report pointed out. There is no record of a psychology class at Yale where Carson has said he was singled out as the most honest student, according to the Wall Street Journal. And details of an incident where Carson said he attempted to stab another teenager in the ninth grade—a tale that forms the backbone of his story of spiritual redemption — appear to have shifted over the years, according to CNN and reporting from various other outlets.

The Carson campaign has thus far lambasted the stories as a politically motivated “witch hunt” — whether he’s pressed on the facts of his personal history at the debate remains to be seen.   

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is also feeling increasing pressure to punch harder and guard against attacks on Tuesday, given the growing uneasiness among the high-dollar donors that have thus far kept his campaign afloat in spite of his lack of popularity among primary voters. His rivals, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, meanwhile, have yet to prove that they can turn their commanding showings at the nationally televised events into surges for their campaigns.

This time, not only are the candidates in the hot seat; so are the moderators themselves.

The CNBC hosts who moderated the last Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colo. were roundly panned for their performance — Republicans criticized them for pointed, overly aggressive questions, with the Republic National Committee going so far as to suspend its partnership with NBC News in the aftermath, while pundits and the press alike lampooned the event for descending into chaos.

Fox Business vowed to take a different approach in Tuesday's debate.

“After that [CNBC] debate, I realized, I knew my marching orders,” said moderator Maria Bartiromo. “That is to help the viewer, help the voter better understand what each candidate’s plan is; is it a realistic plan, can it work and how is it different from the next guy or gal, and that’s what I plan to focus on."

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