The stage for next Wednesday's second GOP presidential debate on CNN is set — and it's growing to eleven to include surging Carly Fiorina.
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO plus the original ten top Republican candidates will face-off in the primetime main debate at 8 p.m. ET at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.-- frontrunner Donald Trump, former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Just five candidates will be relegated to the earlier 6 p.m. ET debate — referred to as the "happy hour" debate or "kid's table" by some — including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki. Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore didn't meet polling standards to even be included in the lower-tier debate.
Fiorina — who was the breakout star of the first debate, even though she didn't make the main stage — will be included Wednesday thanks to a late rule change by CNN. The network had previously said they would take the average of polls dating back to mid-July — which wouldn't have captured Fiorina's late surge. After complaints from both her campaign and many other candidates and strategists, CNN then said last week they would include anyone who registered in the top ten since the beginning of August.
Her inclusion also gives Republicans a female candidate on the stage — someone who can counter the perception that the GOP can't appeal to women. Fiorina has also proven to be a salient attack dog against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Fiorina's presence also gives her a chance to confront Trump, who will again be center stage, head on. Even after a Fox News debate performance where he attacked moderator Megyn Kelly and has continued to make controversial comments, Trump's support has only grown. In a CNN poll released today, he now takes 32 percent of the vote, and 41 percent of Republicans believe he will be the nominee.
On Thursday he faced a new controversy, after a Rolling Stone article quoted him pointing to Fiorina on TV and exclaiming, "Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president." Trump claimed this morning he was talking about her persona.
And Trump and Carson, his next closest competitor, have also clashed. After Carson questioned Trump's faith, the wealthy businessman shot back harder, saying it was Carson who was "not a big man of faith" and that the famed neurosurgeon who was the first to successfully separate conjoined twins was just an "OK doctor."
Those won't be the only ones aiming to take down Trump, though. He's repeatedly clashed with former Bush, who he's dismissed as "low energy," Paul and others. Expect candidates, especially those struggling, to take off the kid gloves and try to find a way to stunt Trump's momentum while trying to have a breakout moment of their own.
And Trump could have another testy moment with one of the debate's moderators, popular conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. After he went on Hewitt's radio show and was tripped up by foreign policy questions, Trump slammed Hewitt's "gotcha" line of questioning and called him a "very low ratings radio host." This debate will specifically focus on foreign policy.
While all eyes will be on the main debate stage, it's the lower tier debate that could give way to the first winnowing of the field. With Fiorina's promotion to the primetime event, there will only be five candidates to face-off. They're all barely registering in polls, and Perry looks particularly wounded after he stopped paying his campaign staff. A consecutive appearance at the secondary debate further underscores the idea that these candidates are, and will remain, long-shots. They have to find a way to elevate themselves, and without the legitimacy that the main debate stage provides, that will be hard.