Fox Business Network announced Monday that Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina won’t be appearing on the main stage during this Thursday’s GOP debates. The chief difference between the two candidates—other than that one has proved capable of getting noticed on a crowded stage—is that Paul had previously said it was primetime-or-bust for him this week—that if he was booted from the main event, he would not take part in the undercard debate. Earlier Monday, Rand declined to repeat that claim explicitly, though he also didn’t revoke it. “I don’t think there’s any way anybody in any clear conscience can exclude us from the main stage,” he told reporters. Given Fox’s less-than-transparent selection process, network execs could have found a way to invite Paul if they really wanted. Clearly, they did not.
Paul promised to keep soldiering on through the Feb. 1 Iowa Caucus regardless, though his exclusion from the main debate is the latest evidence that he’s fighting a losing a war. He entered the campaign cycle as “the most interesting man in politics,” but the only possible way he lived up to that hype is if millions of Americans are sitting at home thinking, boy, it sure is interesting that Rand Paul’s campaign never amounted to much.
His threat to sit out the undercard event now puts him in the awkward position of deciding between going Jim Gilmore-style MIA for the entire night or sucking it up and taking part in an undercard event he’s on record saying shouldn’t even exist. (Update 9:20 pm.: In an interview with the Washington Post on Monday night, Paul confirmed that he plans to follow through on his promise to boycott the early debate. “I’m not willing to accept a designation as a minor campaign,” he said. )
More importantly, he now won’t have the chance to provide the dovish counterweight in primetime to the bomb-the-shit-out-of-them rhetoric that has been dominating the GOP conversation since the Paris terrorist attacks last year—a role that has long seemed like his chief motivation for sticking things out at a time when his energy would be better spent defending his Senate seat in Kentucky. Paul’s decision now becomes even starker than it already was: Either focus on protecting what he has, or continue to chase something he’ll almost certainly never get.