WASHINGTON - The first Republican presidential debate will take place in the Ohio city of Cleveland on August 6, and a mad scramble is underway among some of the contenders who fear they will be excluded from the event.
Under the debate rules, only 10 of the 16 Republican contenders will be allowed to take part in the first of nine Republican debates scheduled into next year. Those candidates who fail to place in an average of five national public opinion polls will be excluded.
That has set off a furious push to qualify for the debate among several Republican contenders who are at the lower end of recent poll rankings. Among those in danger of being cut out are two current governors – Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio – and a former one, Rick Perry of Texas.
Trump continues to dominate
Real estate mogul Donald Trump has shot to the top of national polls in recent weeks, tapping into what he says is voter frustration with the political status quo.
"People are tired of incompetent politicians and that is, by the way, on both sides. We don’t have victories anymore and people are tired of it and that is what is happening to me," Trump said recently in Iowa.
Trump’s surge has continued even after his comment that Arizona Senator John McCain, a prisoner during the Vietnam War, was not a war hero, and after several sharp attacks on some of his Republican rivals that involved words like "dummy" and "idiot."
Karlyn Bowman, who monitors opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, said she has noticed the voter frustration welling up for some time now.
"There is just enormous dissatisfaction with Washington," she said. "People are much more satisfied with their state governors and with their local authorities."
Rivals struggle for notice
Some of the Republican contenders have ramped up their own rhetoric in hopes of cutting through the intense media coverage of Trump’s rise in the polls.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has drawn lots of attention for slamming President Barack Obama over the Iran nuclear deal.
"He is so naïve that he would trust the Iranians and he would take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven," Huckabee said in a radio interview, invoking images of the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.
Huckabee’s comments drew condemnation from some of his rivals, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
Obama weighs in
The president also took the unusual step of weighing in on the Republican race during a news conference in Ethiopia. Obama said the Huckabee comments on the Iran deal and other criticisms from some of the Republican contenders would be "ridiculous if they weren’t so sad."
He added, "Maybe this is just an effort to push Mr. Trump out of the headlines. We are creating a culture that is not conducive to good policy or good politics. The American people deserve better."
Trump and his recent comments attacking illegal immigrants and some of his Republican rivals could dominate next week’s debate. Some, such as Perry and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, are itching to take Trump on in the debate.
"I think he is appealing to the dark side of American politics. He is not offering solutions to hard, complicated problems," Graham told ABC’s "This Week" program.
But Graham has a problem: He may not have enough support in the polls to make the cut for the debate.
The debates will be a key test for all the Republican contenders.
"I think the debates will be important. That, plus the ability to raise money and the ability to show that you have staying power and can win in the early [contest] states are really what you are trying to prove in the first year," predicted John Fortier, a political scientist with the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The Republican race has overshadowed the Democratic primary battle where former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remains a strong favorite, even though Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders continues to draw large, enthusiastic crowds.