The debate standards, announced by CNN last month, adopted one idea pushed for months by the "undercard" candidates. While prior debates included only the candidates who met a national polling threshold, next week's debate would allow anyone who averages at least 4 percent in New Hampshire or Iowa to join the candidates polling at 3.5 percent nationally.
In a RealClearPolitics average, Paul has hit the threshold only with a 4 percent showing in Iowa. But CNN's calculation finds Paul scoring less than that, and the 6 p.m. release of a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll tomorrow could push him either way.
That has left Paul's camp ready to contest any demotion, with Fiorina's successful protest of the first CNN debate's standards as its precedent. The network initially attempted to shrink the stage by inviting only the candidates who met a high-enough average over two long months. Fiorina protested, and CNN buckled, inviting any candidate who hit the top 10 in any national poll.
A "top 10" rule, if followed for the Las Vegas debate, would clearly bring Paul onto the main stage. But unlike Paul, Fiorina had many Republicans pulling for her to change the rules, and put a spotlight on the only woman in the primary. There's less obvious solidarity with Paul, a libertarian-leaning critic of the party's mainstream. And for some candidates, there is the potential of schadenfreude if Paul is relegated to a debate where Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, and former New York governor George Pataki could rip into his views on the Patriot Act and national security.
Paul has also appeared in CNN's promotions for the debate -- as does former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who has fallen well below the polling thresholds. (Graham, Santorum, and Pataki do not appear in the promotions.) Fiorina, who has tumbled since the September debate, is likely to qualify for this one on the strength of a CNN/WMUR poll showing her at 5 percent in New Hampshire.