Ten candidates have made the cut for tonight's Republican presidential debate, a forum that's divided the candidates into two distinct camps and drawn criticism because of its format.
Billionaire businessman Donald Trump is the current front runner, easily making the cut for the 9 p.m. debate on Fox News. The nine others who will share the Cleveland stage with him are former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
The seven other candidates, who didn't poll in the Top 10, will debate at 5 p.m. They are former tech executive Carly Fiorina, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
The largest field of contenders in modern memory challenged debate organizers.
Fox News relied on an average of five national polls to decide the lineups for the prime-time debate and the forum four hours earlier.
What to expect
Layla Shipman, chairman of the Floyd County Republican Party, said debate organizers had little choice with the format.
"You certainly can't have 17 people on a stage," she said. "You're not going to see 17 people on the ballot in most states. You have to, at some point, draw a line."
David Guldenschuh, a former chairman of the local Republican Party, would have preferred the first debate to feature the eight lowest-polling candidates. Viewers and panelists would vote on the winner of that debate, with that candidate advancing to the Top 10, primetime event.
"That would have generated more publicity and given everybody a shot," he added.
Trump has repeatedly scored high in the polls and dominated headlines.
Tonight's debates will give all candidates the chance to deliver their message directly to the voters.
Shipman, who's worked on political campaigns, said candidates should talk about themselves and avoid taking shots at opponents.
"I always say, stay true to your beliefs but also talk about yourself," she said. "You have such a brief time to make a big impact."
Guldenschuh said candidates should avoid major gaffes and deliver a strong one-liner that grabs viewers' attention.
He referenced the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, saying many people remember only two blurbs from that forum: Carter saying he consulted his young daughter about nuclear proliferation and Reagan's "There you go again" quip.
Republican aren't the only ones planning to watch tonight's debates. Ralph Davis, chairman of the Floyd County Democratic Party, said he also will tune in.
Davis hopes to learn what type of president each candidate would be, based on tonight's performances.
"I'm looking to see how they define themselves," he added.
Grabbing people's attention is certain to be difficult. Steve Duprey is New Hampshire's representative to the Republican National Committee and helped craft the debate plan.
"We never ever envisioned we'd have 17 major candidates," Duprey said. "There's no perfect solution."
Republican officials were particularly concerned about Fiorina's status, hoping she would help balance Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton's push to rally women. Trump's recent surge in the polls, a surprise to many Republican officials, damaged Fiorina's chances.
Some Republicans fear that Trump's rhetoric on immigration and other issues could hurt the party.
"I probably am the target," he said Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
He said he did not want to attack any of his rivals and preferred to "just discuss the issues" in the course of a "very civil" debate. Still, he made clear that if attacked, he would have "to do something back."
Trump the front-runner
Trump was far and away the front-runner in the five most recent national polls that determined the debate lineup.
Several candidates were grouped together in the single digits, most separated by a number smaller than the margin of error.
For example, in a Monmouth University survey released Monday, Kasich was the 10th candidate with the support of 3.2 percent of voters.
But after taking the margin of error into account, Monmouth noted that Kasich's support could be as low as 1.5 percent, while almost any of the candidates who polled lower could be that high or higher.
Five more party-sanctioned debates are scheduled before primary voting begins in February.
Rome News-Ttibune Staff Writer Alan Riquelmy contributed to this report.
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