Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) narrowly made the cutoff for CNN's Dec. 15 prime-time debate, avoiding an embarrassment that pundits had predicted for days. Paul's campaign had preemptively asked the network to revisit its debate standards and spare itself a fight. But a late factor — a Fox News poll that pegged his support at 5 percent in Iowa — got him over the line without any further argument.
"Senator Paul has done well in recent polls because he's an important voice on foreign policy and government overreach," said campaign manager Chip Englander. "He's the only candidate who has a plan for a flat tax and a plan to fundamentally shrink the size of government."
If just one or two Iowa voters had answered Fox's pollster differently, the campaign would have been in battle mode. Even the possibility of Paul's demotion to the "undercard" debate inspired a fresh round of campaign death-watch stories this week. CNN's more-complex-than-usual rules, announced after protests from some struggling campaigns in the crowded GOP field, allowed candidates to make the main stage if they hit an average of 3.5 percent in national polls or 4 percent in Iowa or New Hampshire.
That math had ensured the return of Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) to the main stage, based on the strength of his support in New Hampshire. Had CNN not factored in the two early states, Paul, Christie, Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina would have missed the main stage. Instead, all of them will join frontrunner Donald Trump, the surging Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
Paul has arguably received more "death watch" coverage than any of those competitors. By this weekend, when it seemed that Paul was falling short for the debate, the Boston Globe published a story about how the senator was "hinting at" quitting the race.
"We will make an announcement, on that, on Tuesday," Paul was quoted saying at a New Hampshire campaign stop.
The Globe's framing took Paul's campaign by surprise. Minutes after sending out a memo on how CNN should tweak its debate rules, it was answering frenzied questions about whether the candidate was about to fold up his tent. "He was actually talking about what he does if [he's] not on the main stage," Paul strategist Doug Stafford told The Washington Post. When the campaign put out an official statement on the story, the Globe altered the headline, removing the reference to Paul's "hint."
"If we want the national media to dictate our candidates by less than a percentage point, sit back and don't complain," Paul's New Hampshire strategist Michael Biundo wrote on Facebook, before the final decision. "In 2012 the eventual Iowa caucus winner who I worked for would have been kicked off the main stage under this insane process. [Rick] Santorum went on to win 11 states."
Yet media's willingness to believe the story said plenty about Paul's position in the race. Few candidates received as much interest in the run-up to the primaries; few have been subjected to as many stories about "what went wrong." Reporters have quietly walked away from regular coverage of the Paul campaign, in ways big and small. Breitbart News confirmed, then pulled out of coverage of a four-day Paul trip to Haiti. Coverage of his stops in the early primary states, which once attracted cable news interest, have sometimes drawn only local media.
That trend persisted even during what seemed to be a strong run by the candidate. At the Fox Business Network debate in Milwaukee on Nov. 10, Paul was widely perceived as a winner, using more time than he had before to start fights with Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) about trade and foreign policy. Weeks earlier, the leaders of his super PAC prevailed in an embarrassing trial over funds they had funneled to a Iowa state senator who had endorsed Paul's father, former congressman Ron Paul, in 2012. Even the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., seemed to hold the potential of activating libertarian voters for Paul, whose opposition to the National Security Agency's collection of phone metadata and the renewal of the Patriot Act stood out even more in his increasingly hawkish party.
Thanks to the Fox News poll, Paul will get a chance to test that in prime time. Had the numbers gone another way, he would have been shunted to the less-watched "undercard" debate, where more hawkish Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) would have had a clear shot at him. Meanwhile, Cruz, who has voted alongside Paul on some key privacy and national security bills, would have had an even clearer chance to pitch to the "liberty movement" that Ron Paul built.
The "undercard" debate begins at 6 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, and will include Graham, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former New York Governor George Pataki, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. The prime-time debate starts at 8:30.
The full Saturday statement from Paul's campaign, which laid out arguments in case the candidate was snubbed, is below.
Prior to CNN's Republican Presidential debate announcement, Rand Paul for President has had discussions with the RNC and CNN in which the campaign indicated that Rand Paul should be on the main stage on Tuesday. Our campaign asserts that fairness in dealing with polling variances, which previously allowed for amended rules for Carly Fiorina for CNN's August Republican Presidential debate, would indicate Rand Paul should be on the main stage during Tuesday's debate.Some of the points include:1. Polling criteria has been amended in the previous CNN debate in a similar manner to what we are urging be done today.In August, polls were all over the place. Older polls had one result, while newer ones had another. Even in contemporaneous polls, there were different people ahead and behind. Thus it was determined that additional time periods and criteria were warranted for fairness. We ask for the same process today.A. In addition to the previously announced criteria, if a candidate qualified via the polling between the last debate and this debate, they are on the main stage.B. In addition to the previously announced and above criteria, if a candidate is above other main stage participants in multiple polls, they are on the main stage. Senator Paul is in the TOP FIVE in multiple polls, including the newest New York Times national poll.2. Senator Paul has a national, first-tier campaign, organized in all 50 states. He is on the ballot everywhere that has had filing. He has over 400 fully operational grassroots groups, and his campaign and related entities have raised $22 million for this race. It is simply not consistent with facts to attempt to force the campaign off of the main debate stage.3. Rounding up should be applied. Polling margins are simply too wide to allow a quarter or half a point to determine the outcome. 4. The campaign is not asking for special treatment, but simply fairness in criteria, whether it be time frames, allowances for poll variances, or rounding, all of which have been applied to other debates.Senator Paul is eager for Tuesday's CNN debate, and looks forward to his fair and rightful place on the main stage.