NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee have been bumped from the main stage at next week's GOP presidential debate, while George Pataki and Lindsey Graham have been cut from the lineup altogether.
Debate sponsor Fox Business Network announced the moves Thursday evening, dealing a major blow to all four candidates, particularly Christie, the New Jersey governor, and Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, as they struggled to stand out in the crowded Republican field amid signs of momentum in states where the first primary contests will be held.
The decision underscores concerns about the pivotal role that national opinion surveys have been playing in shaping the contest for the GOP nomination. Statistically, pollsters say, there is no significant difference between candidates lumped together near the bottom of the pack in national polls, which often have a margin of error of 3 percentage points or more.
"I tell people, 'Ignore the national polls and just follow those early states,'" said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who argues that early opinion surveys are notoriously unreliable. "Except that now national polls drive the debates, and debates drive the polling."
According to debate criteria issued by Fox Business, candidates must score 2.5 percent or higher in an average of the four most recent major polls conducted through Nov. 4 to be featured in the prime-time debate. They must hit the 1 percent mark to qualify for an undercard debate airing before the main event.
See Christie on the campaign trail:
Chris Christie on the campaign trail
Christie, Huckabee relegated to undercard at next GOP debate
Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talks as he meets with a supporter before a news conference Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie greets Fidelity Investments employees, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, at their facility in Merrimack, N.H. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie listens to a briefing on a snowstorm during a visit to the New Jersey Department of Transportation Traffic Management and Technology Center, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in Woodbridge, N.J. Towns across the state are hunkering down during a major snowstorm that hit overnight. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Republican Presidential hopeful Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey speaks during the 2016 Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum in Washington, DC, December 3, 2015. (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during the Republican Presidential Debate, hosted by CNN, at The Venetian Las Vegas on December 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. AFP PHOTO/ ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie steps off the bus with his wife Mary Pat during a campaign stop at the launch of his four day bus tour, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in Exeter, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, speaks during a meet and greet with local residents, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015, in Bettendorf, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during the APPS National Security Forum, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Republican presidential candidate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a campaign event at the Glory Days Sports Bar and Grill in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at a No Labels Problem Solver convention, Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Republican presidential candidate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talks with employees during a campaign stop at East Coast Lumber Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, in East Hampstead, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
THIS WEEK - 10/4/15 - Presidential candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appears on THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, airing on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Ida Mae Astute/ABC via Getty Images)
Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, waves while waiting for Pope Francis, not pictured, to arrive for a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Pope Francis, the first pontiff to address U.S. Congress, is preaching to a less-than-harmonious congregation as he faces a Congress riven by disputes over issues closest to his heart: income inequality, immigration and climate change. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appears on 'Meet the Press' in Washington, D.C., Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. (Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to supporters during an event announcing he will seek the Republican nomination for president, Tuesday, June 30, 2015, at Livingston High School in Livingston, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0319 -- Pictured: (l-r) Governor Chris Christie during an interview with host Jimmy Fallon on August 31, 2015 -- (Photo by: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talks with Joan Vlangas, left, during a campaign stop at a Greek festival in Manchester, N.H., Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
SQUAWK BOX -- Pictured: Governor Chris Christie in an interview on August 27, 2015 -- (Photo by: David Orrell/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie answers a question as he addresses a gathering at the Chabad House at Rutgers University Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, in New Brunswick, N.J. Christie urged Democratic Sen. Cory Booker and the state's congressional delegation to oppose the Iran deal, which is aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear weapons development.(AP Photo/Mel Evans)
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - AUGUST 25: New Jersey Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie speaks at Chabad House at Rutgers University to express his opposition to President Obama's Iran deal on August 25, 2015 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Christie also encouraged U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) to oppose the deal. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, right, talks with Joe Hedrick at the Iowa State Fair Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
DES MOINES, IA - AUGUST 22: Republican presidential candidate New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tosses a pork burger on the grill at the Iowa Pork Producers Tent at the Iowa State Fair on August 22, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. Presidential candidates have a long tradition of making campaign stops at the fair. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Moderator Campbell Brown listens as Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during an education summit, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, in Londonderry, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, congratulates Triple Crown winner American Pharoah's trainer Bob Baffert after American Pharoah won the Haskell Invitational horse race at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015. Keen Ice was second. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talks with drivers in the garage area before the NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race, Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Republican presidential candidate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appears on "The Five" television program, on the Fox News Channel, in New York, Wednesday, July 22, 2015, with two of the show's co-hosts Dana Perino and Greg Gutfeld, right.(AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Republican presidential candidate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talks with supporters at a house party in Salem, N.H. Friday, July 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
New Jersey Gov. Gov. Chris Christie observes clients in the computer room at the hall during a tour of Volunteers of America Hope Hall as part of his focus on criminal justice reform, Thursday July 16, 2015 in Camden, N.J. Christie is calling for changes in the criminal justice system, seeking in part to give nonviolent drug offenders a better shot at rebuilding their lives and to improve frayed relations between communities and police. (Chris Pedota/Northjersey.com via AP, Pool)
Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to potential voters during a campaign town hall meeting, Thursday, July 2, 2015, in Rochester, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
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As a result of the new standards, the prime-time affair will feature eight candidates — the smallest lineup so far. Eleven candidates were featured in the party's opening primetime debate in August.
The prime-time lineup: businessman Donald Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former technology executive Carly Fiorina, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The undercard event features just four candidates: Christie, Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Pataki, the former New York governor, and Graham, a South Carolina senator, already faced a tough road to the GOP nomination. Their omission from the undercard debates will make it even harder for them to convince voters — and donors — that they have a viable path to the nomination.
"It is ironic that the only veteran in the race is going to be denied a voice the day before Veterans Day," Graham campaign manager Christian Ferry said in a statement. "In the end, the biggest loser tonight is the American people and the Republican presidential primary process that has been hijacked by news outlets."
See Huckabee on the campaign trail:
Mike Huckabee on the campaign trail
Christie, Huckabee relegated to undercard at next GOP debate
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee addressed the crowd as they wait for Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis to be released from the Carter County Detention Center, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Grayson, Ky. Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, was released Tuesday after five days behind bars. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Former Arkansas governor and 2016 American Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee gestures during a press conference in Jerusalem on August 19, 2015. AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, speaks to attendees at the Iowa State Fair Soapbox in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015. Huckabee said he believes his FairTax plan would get the U.S. growing at six percent 'or higher.' Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, looks on as his wife Janet Huckabee, not pictured, introduces him before he speaks during a campaign stop at Northside Cafe in Winterset, Iowa, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. Huckabee will speak at the Iowa State Fair's political soapbox tomorrow. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, speaks to attendees during a campaign stop at Northside Cafe in Winterset, Iowa, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. Huckabee will speak at the Iowa State Fair's political soapbox tomorrow. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Former Arkansas governer Mike Huckabee participates in the Republican presidential primary debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas and Republican U.S. 2016 presidential candidate, arrives on stage to speak during the RISE Initiative black Christian summit in Tinley Park, Illinois, U.S., on Friday, July 31, 2015. Pursuing America's Greatness, the political action committee (PAC) supporting Huckabee, had nearly $3.5 million in cash on hand as of June 30, according to a Federal Election Commission (FEC) report. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
TINLEY PARK, IL - JULY 31: Republican presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee speaks to the press after addressing the Freedom's Journal Institute for the Study of Faith and Public Policy 2015 Rise Initiative on July 31, 2015 in Tinley Park, Illinois. The event was billed as a 'frank discussion on defending the sanctity of life from conception to natural death'. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
TINLEY PARK, IL - JULY 31: Republican presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee leaves after speaking to guests at the Freedom's Journal Institute for the Study of Faith and Public Policy 2015 Rise Initiative on July 31, 2015 in Tinley Park, Illinois. The event was billed as a 'frank discussion on defending the sanctity of life from conception to natural death'. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
MANNING, SC - JULY 19: Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee attends the Faith and Freedom Sunday service at the Rock Hill Missionary Baptist Church on July 19, 2015 in Manning, South Carolina. After the service the former Governor mixed with the church parishioners. (Photos by Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas and 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, speaks during The Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, U.S., on Saturday, July 18, 2015. The sponsor, The FAMiLY LEADER, is a 'pro-family, pro-marriage, pro-life organization which champions the principle that God is the ultimate leader of the family.' Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Republican Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee speaks to the media shortly before his speech at the 10th Annual Christians United for Israel Summit on July 13, 2015, at the Washington Convention Center, in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 6 - GOP presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee hugs a supporter after the Presidential Town Hall series, hosted by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., at the Civic Center of Anderson in Anderson, S.C. on Monday, July 6, 2015. Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and Republican 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, speaks during the inaugural Roast and Ride in Boone, Iowa, U.S., on Saturday, June 6, 2015. Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, hosted the inaugural Roast and Ride event which featured a 38-mile ride from a Des Moines Harley Davidson dealership to the Central Iowa Expo where seven current and potential Republican presidential candidates are expected to participate. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, announces he will seek the Republican presidential nomination at Hempstead Hall in Hope, Arkansas, U.S., on Tuesday, May 5, 2015. The 59-year-old former talk-show host and Christian preacher is expected to tout his decade of experience leading Arkansas and his conservative credentials to persuade voters they should hand him the 2016 Republican nomination. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry provides a cautionary tale of the potential impact. Fundraising dollars dried up after Perry was relegated to the undercard debate earlier in the year.
During an appearance on Fox News earlier in the day, Christie seemed resigned to the fact that he might be forced into a match-up that has been derisively referred to as the "kiddie table." After the announcement, Christie tweeted: "It doesn't matter the stage, give me a podium and I'll be there to talk about real issues."
Steve Duprey, chairman of the Republican National Committee's debate subcommittee, has been frustrated that debate criteria used by TV networks have ignored candidates' standing in early-voting states where they spend most of their time.
"When you do debates based on national polls, it undermines the ability of a lesser-known, lesser-funded candidate to get traction," said Duprey, a Republican national committeeman from New Hampshire. He suggested that Democrat Bill Clinton or Republican John McCain could have struggled to emerge under the current system.
At this time in 2007, polls showed that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was far ahead of his closest challenger with the eventual nominee, McCain, in third. And Hillary Rodham Clinton was leading then-Sen. Barack Obama by about 20 percentage points.
The Republican National Committee, which coordinated many of the debate logistics, has been challenged by campaigns looking for more control.
Some lower-tier campaigns have been pushing aggressively for two debates featuring major candidates with each lineup determined at random. While networks have the flexibility to change their formats, such a scenario remains unlikely. More likely, according to campaigns involved in debate discussions, is that the undercard debate will be eliminated altogether as early as the GOP's December debate.
Pataki called debate organizers' reliance on national polls "a disservice to voters everywhere" and "a clear boost to the worship of celebrity over accomplishment and ideas."
"The voters — not networks driven by ratings or national polls that are statistically irrelevant — should decide our next president," he said after Fox Business Network announced the lineup.
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After next week's face-offs, just two debates remain before the opening primary contest in Iowa.
"I'm happy to debate anyone, anywhere, anytime," Huckabee said. "We are months away from actual votes being cast and neither the pundits nor the press will decide this election. The people will."
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