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As First Presidential Debate Looms, A Look At The Landscape Of The Race

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Get ready for the biggest week yet for the Republican presidential candidates. Seventeen candidates are now in the race. They'll all be on stage for their first debate on Thursday in Cleveland, but not all at the same time. NPR's Jessica Taylor is here to talk about what to expect. Jessica, can you explain how they're dividing 17 candidates between two debates?

JESSICA TAYLOR, BYLINE: So the top candidates are going to debate on "Fox News" Thursday night. The network has decided that the top 10 candidates in an average of the five most recent national polls will make the cut. The rest of the crop will meet in a debate earlier that afternoon. Now that's been an unpopular decision with many people. This early in the campaign, candidates are focusing on early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, and they're not campaigning nationally yet.

So a candidate may be doing better in one of the first primary states,, but still hasn't caught on nationally. Candidates who are on the bubble to make the main stage say that skews the odds toward Republicans with more money and name ID. That's why we've seen some candidates, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, make national ad buys, and other longer shot candidates who probably aren't going to make the debate stage, like 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum, go on national TV media blitzes.

RATH: So who then looks like they'll make the cut for the top 10?

TAYLOR: Donald Trump is still actually leading the pack, so he's going to be onstage. The other top-tier Republicans who will be in are former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Next, we have Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who look like they'll make the cut.

From there, it gets dicier. Christie and Ohio Governor John Kasich are very close in the average of polls. We're talking about less than a point difference that's still within the margin of error. Not far behind them is Texas Governor Rick Perry. Now, those three are battling for the final two spots.

RATH: Now, pundits have been predicting all the time, almost since he started running, that Trump was about to come crashing to earth, but his poll numbers, like you mentioned, keep - they're strong. What does this debate mean for him?

TAYLOR: This debate is his first real scrutiny. Can he withstand national attention when it gets into these on issues against other candidates. And remember, some of his issue positions in the past have really been more liberal on things like health care and abortion. That's because many contribute his current success to name ID and celebrity.

Bottom line for political junkies like me who do this for a living - we've been following these politicians for months or even years, but the average American voter hasn't. They may know some of the candidates, but this is a time when the would-be presidents can really shine or fall on their face. Many are hoping Donald Trump does just that and his bubble does burst.

RATH: Now, how bad is it - or is it that bad - to be in that second debate?

TAYLOR: As I like to say, nobody wants to be playing in the NIT Tournament when you could make the NCAA bracket. The other debate, which airs at 5 p.m. Eastern time Thursday on Fox, will be televised and feature the rest of the field who doesn't make the stage. But it's still not as big a platform as the main, primetime event at 9 p.m. Eastern. There could still be advantages, though. If the main debate turns into the Trump show, the second debate might actually be the most substantive. But if no one hears them, will it really matter is the question.

RATH: That's NPR's Jessica Taylor on the line from Washington. Jessica, thank you.

TAYLOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.