WASHINGTON • Republican governors Chris Christie and John Kasich have grabbed the last spots on stage next to front-runner Donald Trump and seven others in the first prime-time television candidates' debate in the countdown to next year's US presidential election.
For the 10 candidates, it is a potentially valuable head start in exposure. At centre stage tonight on the Fox News network, will be Mr Trump - the real-estate mogul who has shot to the top of the Republican polls - flanked by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
They are the top three finishers in an average of five recent opinion polls.
Also making the cut were former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, US Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, and governors Christie of New Jersey and Kasich of Ohio.
But former Texas governor Rick Perry, former senator Rick Santorum and five others in the crowded 2016 Republican field were left out.
I understand that having that many candidates is a challenge and it's a problem they should have figured out a way to resolve.
MR DAVID WINSTON, a top Republican pollster
The leftover candidates will appear in a separate forum earlier in the evening, leaving them fighting to win attention and prove to voters and donors they have a legitimate shot at the nomination.
Joining Mr Perry and Mr Santorum in the earlier forum will be Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former business executive Carly Fiorina, former New York Governor George Pataki and former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore.
Newt Gingrich in the 2012 presidential race.
Of those who did not make the prime-time debate, Mr Winston said: "These are quality candidates who have earned the right to be involved in a presidential debate."
There should have been a way to accommodate sitting senators and governors with records of accomplishment, he said.
"I understand that having that many candidates is a challenge and it's a problem they should have figured out a way to resolve," he added.
Those candidates deemed not ready for prime time at the Cleveland debate tried to stay positive.
"I look forward to answering questions on Thursday in Cleveland," Ms Fiorina said in a statement.
Mr Perry said on Twitter that he was looking forward to the forum "for what will be a serious exchange of ideas and positive solutions to get America back on track".
Allies of some candidates who were spurned are turning their attention to the early nominating states. Mr Brad Todd, an adviser to the super Political action committee supporting Mr Jindal, who has been attracting large crowds in Iowa, said: "The debate's gotten disproportionate attention - the real race is happening in Iowa and New Hampshire."
Fox's decision to limit the participants was criticised by some Republicans as unfair, given the number of candidates bunched in the low single digits, well within the margin of error of most polls.
Fox said it used polls conducted by Bloomberg, CBS News, Fox News, Monmouth University and Quinnipiac University, the five most recent national polls using standard methodology.
The number of Republicans running vastly exceeds that of other recent election cycles, a reflection of the prospect of capturing the White House without a Republican incumbent and also a belief for many that there is no strong candidate in the field keeping them out.
REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, NEW YORK TIMES