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Zach Montellaro and Steven Shepard

The anti-Trump presidential candidates clear an important hurdle

Chris Christie has projected confidence that he’ll be on the Republican primary debate stage. When asked on Fox News Channel on Wednesday whether he’d be there in August, he responded simply: “You bet.” | Charles Krupa/AP Photo
UPDATED: 12 JUL 2023 09:02 PM EST

Donald Trump’s critics got a big break in the Republican primary on Wednesday, though they’ll need a few more for it to truly matter.

The first poll that meets all the criteria for candidates to qualify for the first GOP debate was released earlier this week. And it opened the door for two candidates openly critical of the former president to get on stage come Aug. 23.

The survey, from the pollster Morning Consult, satisfied the Republican National Committee’s rules for what counts as a qualifying poll, the RNC confirmed to POLITICO — principally that it surveyed at least 800 likely GOP primary voters, an unusually large sample size for national polls that measure the broader electorate.

The poll showed eight candidates hitting another RNC debate criteria: that they garner at least 1 percent support. Those were Trump (56 percent), Ron DeSantis (17 percent), Vivek Ramaswamy (8 percent), Mike Pence (7 percent), Nikki Haley (3 percent), Tim Scott (3 percent), Chris Christie (3 percent) and Asa Hutchinson (1 percent).

The last two are prominent critics of the frontrunner, but they — like all the candidates — still have to hit other benchmarks to qualify. RNC rules require candidates to hit that 1 percent in three national polls — or that same figure in two national polls and one early nominating state poll — along with having 40,000 individual donors (with at least 200 donors in 20 different states), and pledging to support the eventual nominee.

The ambitious requirement for a poll to have sampled 800 likely GOP primary voters led to speculation that there would be a dearth of qualified surveys, which, in turn, would squeeze marginal candidates off the stage. Morning Consult typically updates its results on a weekly basis. (POLITICO has partnered with Morning Consult in the past, but is unaffiliated with the recent survey from the organization.)

The first six of those candidates who hit the 1 percent figure in the most recent Morning Consult poll all appear likely to qualify for the debate in August, as they typically track above the 1 percent waterline in most polls. The campaigns for Trump, DeSantis, Ramaswamy, Scott and Haley have also all indicated they have already met the 40,000 donor threshold, as well.

Christie usually clears the 1 percent mark in most publicly released polls, and Hutchinson hovers around that level of support. But those surveys hadn’t sampled 800 likely primary voters.

Christie told CNN late Wednesday that his campaign had cleared the donor threshold just a day ago. His announcement came after allies of the former New Jersey governor had focused on the requirements as a potential roadblock. Tell It Like It Is — a pro-Christie super PAC — has run digital ads highlighting his sharp criticism of Trump, arguing only he has the “debate chops … to make an effective argument, prosecute a case, and land a haymaker.” And the PAC for former Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), another Trump foe, recently emailed supporters urging them to give to Christie so that he can brawl with Trump on the debate stage.

“Now I've had my fair share of disagreements with Chris Christie, and I'm not telling you he should be president,” Kinzinger wrote. “BUT, if he doesn't meet the threshold of individual donors necessary to participate in the first three debates, there will literally be no one on stage willing to say ‘the Emperor has no clothes.’”

The donor requirements could be more challenging for Hutchinson, who told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt last week that he had around 5,000 donors. “We got more work to do,” he said. “We got time to do it.”

Some candidates have rolled out far more outlandish measures to make it on the debate stage. Perry Johnson, a self-described “quality guru” businessman, has promised donors things like hats that say “I identify as ‘non-Bidenary’” for as little as a $1 donation, while North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is promising people a $20 gift card in return for chipping in a buck. (Burgum was listed at 0 percent support in the Morning Consult poll, while Johnson appeared to have not been included.)

Christie, for his part, has projected confidence that he’ll be on the debate stage. When asked on Fox News Channel on Wednesday whether he’d be there in August, he responded simply: “You bet.”

But the RNC’s loyalty pledge could also trip him up, as neither he nor Hutchinson have committed to support Trump should he be the nominee.

Whether Trump himself will be at the debate remains an open question. The former president has publicly toyed with the idea of not participating, grousing about alleged unfair treatment from the host media organization Fox News and saying he wants to deny his opponents political oxygen.

“People don’t debate when they have these massive leads. They say, ‘Why would we debate?’” he posited to billionaire John Catsimatidis on his radio show in April. “I would have a hostile group of anchors — a hostile network — asking questions. Why would I do that?”

Lucy Hodgman and Lisa Kashinsky contributed to this report.

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