The big show

This post originally appeared in Slate.

In 1996, Alan Keyes, who sought the Republican presidential nomination, was barred from participating in a primary debate held by a South Carolina business council. So were Sen. Dick Lugar, Rep. Robert K. Dornan, and Morry Taylor, because all of them were barely registering in the polls. But Keyes wouldn't take the slight without a fight. He announced that he was starting a hunger strike in protest. "Is our crisis today a money crisis or a moral crisis?" Mr. Keyes asked. "Unless I am on that stage, that question will not be raised."

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Keyes encouraged supporters to join his fast, which he said would not end until he received assurances that he was going to be treated fairly. (Staffers in rival GOP campaigns who did not have Mr. Keyes interests at heart, and who considered the whole thing a stunt, found sport in trading pretend sightings of Keyes secretly breaking his fast at places like Red Lobster or the closest vending machine.)

Several days later, Keyes was forcibly ejected from an Atlanta debate where he tried to gain entrance despite not being invited. "Get your hands off me," he yelled as a police officer escorted him from the hall to the sound of boos. Keyes, who rarely broke above 3 percent in the polls, made a big show, but never made it into the show.

That was the high water mark of a candidate throwing a tantrum for not making the cut. Several political analysts have predicted similar behavior from Republicans in response to the rules Fox and CNN announced late last week for their debates. Fox is allowing the top 10 in the polling average to participate. CNN opted for an adults and kids table; the top 10 will square off in one debate, while the others who poll above 1 percent will have their own separate debate.

This decision may bring out the worst in candidates on the cusp. It isn't hard to imagine that they will engage in attention-grabbing gestures to improve their standing in the polls so that they can get on the debate stage.

This is plausible, but aren't they all already trying to get attention anyway? And let's say they light their hair on fire and that leads to better poll numbers, can that be sustained? If it were that easy, wouldn't candidates light their hair on fire and become more popular and presumably ride that popularity to the nomination? Whether they engage in stupendous theatrical acts or not, candidates worried they might not make the big 10 will no doubt try to sharpen the distinctions with their opponents in ways that will improve their lot and perhaps pull down the competition.

It's true that the structure rewards people with high name recognition and not the candidates grinding it out handshake-by-handshake in the primary and caucus states. That seems to put the process at odds with itself: On the one hand the primary and caucus process is designed to give voters up-close contact with candidates, but the debate rules reward the cool kids in the class.

Except that there is no better system anyone has yet conceived of to handle the number of possible candidates and still hold an even barely useful examination of views. And if you're in the top 10, it's not really that exclusive a club.

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The best strategy for a candidate who will not make it into the top 10 is probably to put his or her marbles on the CNN debate. While it may be a little sad to be at the kids' table--called Segment A in the CNN rules--there is a way to take advantage of your lot. First, anything you say that challenges the candidates in the main debate--called Segment B and which will immediately follow the second-tier forum--will probably be discussed in that debate. It's in CNN's interest to keep the drama going between the two debates because it makes for better television. It also makes their first hour seem relevant and not just a booby prize.

That wouldn't be hard for a candidate to do since it's easy to pose questions that are tough on your competitors. Sen. Lindsay Graham, who may not make the cut, has some fastballs I'm sure he could put to Sen. Rand Paul on the issue of foreign policy. Carly Fiorina could ask questions of the senators who want to be hired for the ultimate executive position without ever having run anything. Rick Santorum has peppery things to say about how the GOP is the party of the boardroom and not the regular guy.

This could also make for better debates because it might sharpen distinctions and get people talking. A candidate who makes it in the top 10 for those first few debates will try to be risk-averse, using the moment to offer platitudes and look pleasing, which is pretty much what they try to do in these early contests.

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So far, no GOP candidates are putting up much of a fuss about this Darwinian, survival- of-the-fittest, debate plan. In part, says one Republican Party insider, the response has been muted because no candidate wants to be considered a loser. If you immediately complain about the rules, you're admitting that you're not in the top 10 and might not be by August. It makes you kind of a pathetic figure worthy of pity but not the presidency.

The model is Fiorina. She is not in the top 10, but gamely accepted the challenge to make the grade. "I come from a world where it's all about the goals and the metrics," she said, "And so if you give me a goal, I'm going to work really hard to try to meet or exceed that goal, so that's what I've got to go do now." She's got two months and a few polling percentages to go.