"I think they’ve made a mistake," said Paul, who learned of the demotion shortly after 6 p.m. "I'm not willing to accept a designation as a minor campaign. We've raised $25 million. We've gotten on the ballot on every state. It's kind of ridiculous to arbitrarily rate the campaigns based on national polling."
Paul, who has struggled to regain his footing from the pre-Donald Trump Republican primary, had nearly been exiled from the last two debates. After he narrowly won a place on the main stage for CNN's December debate, at least one media critic argued that he had unfairly goaded the network into bending its debate rules.
The standards for this week's debate were unbendable. The network announced weeks ago that the six candidates polling best in national surveys were guaranteed places on stage, and anyone polling in the top five in New Hampshire or Iowa could also grab a lectern. That rescued Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio), who barely registers nationally but polls strongly in New Hampshire. Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard executive whose strong early debate performances led to a brief summer surge, was pushed back to the "undercard."
Fiorina's campaign did not immediately answer a question about her debate plans, but she had not joined Paul in the pre-debate protests of the standards. For days, the senator has told interviewers that he would refuse to participate in an undercard debate, rejecting any suggestion that showing up could help him stay in the conversation.
"I'm just not willing to accept that," Paul said tonight. "We're getting bigger crowds. Just this week, in New Hampshire, we had bigger crowds at the Exeter Town Hall than Bill Clinton."
It's rare for a candidate invited to any presidential debate to say no. Paul's father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, was denied a spot in a Fox News-hosted New Hampshire debate just days before the 2008 primary -- a move his supporters responded to with protests and chants aimed at Fox's Sean Hannity. Throughout 2007 and 2011, Paul's "liberty movement" swarmed the websites of networks hosting the debates, making sure their candidate won the reader polls.
Asked if his own supporters or donors would react badly to the debate snub, Sen. Paul reiterated that the "arbitrary, capricious polling standard" had been a source of disgust for the grassroots, dubbing it a story of media political bias.
"It won't take much for our supporters to understand why we're doing this," Paul said. "You want war? We’ll give it to you."