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New GOP debate criteria puts several candidates on September hot seat

ANALYSIS: A higher polling threshold means more work to do even for some candidates on track to make the first debate in August.
Photo Composition: Trump, Pence, DeSantis, Ramaswany, Christie, Haley, Scott, Burgum
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The Republican National Committee is raising the bar to qualify for its second presidential debate in September — a move that could leave several candidates on track to make the first debate in danger of missing the second one.

Seven candidates appear to have already punched tickets to the first debate, with a handful of candidates trying to clear the bar in the final weeks before the Aug. 23 showdown.

The new criteria for the September debate, confirmed to NBC News by a person familiar with the party’s plans, will raise the fundraising bar for each candidate from 40,000 unique donors to 50,000. And while candidates will need fewer surveys to check the box for the polling criteria, they’ll need to hit 3% in those polls.

That’s where some candidates could run into trouble: Hitting 3% in either two national polls after Aug. 1 or in one national poll plus surveys from two different early-voting states is a bigger lift than the 1% mark needed in the August debate criteria.

Candidates also have to pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee and meet some other technical criteria. Here’s how the GOP primary looks in terms of qualifying for the September debate.

Who’s likely to make the stage?

The new polling and debate thresholds should be a cakewalk for former President Donald Trump, who has led every recent, high-quality poll of the GOP nominating field and ended June with about 400,000 unique online donors (per an NBC News analysis).

Likewise, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t expected to have trouble either. He has settled into a clear second place, polling safely in double-digits, and he’s brought in more money from donors than any non-Trump GOP candidate this year.

Same goes for businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. All three have been at or above 3% in virtually every qualifying poll, and each of them announced reached the 40,000 threshold weeks ago.

And while former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been a bit less consistent in the polls than those others, he has hit 3% in a number of recent polls that appear to meet the RNC’s technical criteria. Christie has a strong chance to meet the new polling threshold unless something happens at the first debate that cuts into his support. He also cleared the 40,000 threshold relatively quickly after his June campaign launch.

Whose outlook is less clear?

After those candidates, all bets are off. Republican hopefuls will have until 48 hours before the second debate to meet all the thresholds, giving candidates who fell short of the first stage about a month to improve their fortunes.

Former Vice President Mike Pence almost always hits at least 3% in qualifying polls, too, so he likely won’t be sweating the polling criteria. And while he hasn’t hit the 40,000-donor mark yet, his campaign said this week he had eclipsed 30,000 and was averaging more than 1,000 new donors a day, so he’s expected to make the August debate stage soon.

If he keeps up that pace, with Pence’s campaign embracing the spotlight brought on him by the recent Trump indictment, he’d hit 50,000 donors with weeks to spare before the September debate.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is another interesting case. While self-funding, he hit the donor threshold thanks in part to his campaign giving donors $20 credit card gift cards for donating just $1 to his campaign.

But Burgum has an issue: He virtually never eclipses 1% in national polling. He is performing better in state-level polling, however, after a major ad-spending blitz in the early states.

So whether Burgum makes the second debate could hinge on a few key factors: how many pollsters release state-level surveys with a large-enough sample size to meet the RNC’s polling criteria, whether he can boost his profile during the first debate, or if he's willing to continue to spend at a major clip to boost his numbers nationally, since he'll need to hit 3% in at least one national poll.

Who faces an uphill battle?

The remaining candidates, all who remain long shots (at best) to make the first debate, will struggle to meet the criteria for the second one.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson hasn’t eclipsed 1% in any polls that appear to meet the RNC’s technical criteria for determining the field for the first debate. And he said this week he was about halfway to meeting the 40,000-donor threshold, casting doubt on whether his fundraising support can boost him to the first debate, let alone the second one.

Others, like conservative commentator Larry Elder, former Rep. Will Hurd of Texas and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, do not appear to have hit the donor threshold for the first debate and are registering in polling less consistently than Hutchinson.