To this point, discussion of the first televised debate in the Republican presidential race has centered on who's in, who's out, and the equity of the poll-based selection process.

Now the question is: How much does it really matter?

When Fox News broadcasts the clash Aug. 6 from Cleveland, 10 candidates will be bunched on stage for two hours. Given format constraints, commercial breaks, and three superstar moderators asking questions, each candidate will be lucky to get nine minutes total.

It could be hard to break out.

And it's virtually certain Donald Trump will make the cut. If he dominates the show as expected, a candidate might be better off at the "kids' table," the separate forum Fox has promised for the candidates who do not qualify for the main event.

Nevertheless, the 16 announced Republican candidates are jockeying to qualify for the adult table, the debate seen in prime time on the cable network that shapes GOP politics. In a fluid race, with no clear front-runner, it could be a turning point.

"Plenty of research shows that watching primary debates changes voters' minds," said William L. Beloit, a professor of communication at Ohio University who has written a book on the topic. "It solidifies choices and, especially early on, influences voter perceptions of the candidates' character."

Reacting to the 2012 primary season's endless loop of televised debates, the Republican National Committee sought to impose order this time, sanctioning only nine events before the voting starts early next year. Eligibility criteria were left up to the networks.

Of course, party officials probably did not anticipate the size of the field or Trump's making good on his quadrennial threats to run for president.

"You have to assume he'll be loud and aggressive and do everything he can to stay on offense," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who dominated several of the 2012 debates. "Trump is very smart; he has lots of TV experience and is absolutely uninhibited."

To say the least. Trump has insulted many Hispanics with harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, including calling Mexican migrants rapists and criminals with "some good people." His rhetoric, GOP leaders say, has complicated the party's efforts to repair its image among the nation's fastest-growing demographic.

And Trump said that Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), a POW after his plane was shot down over North Vietnam, was not a war hero because he got captured. (Trump had several deferments from the draft.)

GOP strategist Charles Gerow doubts that the orange-haired provocateur will dominate the debate.

"It's not his show," said Gerow, a Pennsylvania strategist, who is advising businesswoman Carly Fiorina's campaign. "A lot of people presume he'll be out of control, but there are rules and moderators to keep him from interrupting. There are a number of ways to rein him in."

But, barring an epic collapse, Trump will be onstage, probably near the center of the line of lecterns, at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, host of next summer's GOP convention.

If the debate were held today, Trump would be joined by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; New Jersey's Gov. Christie; and, tied for 10th, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

In the alternate debate: Fiorina, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, and former New York Gov. George Pataki.

Those lineups are based on the average of national polls aggregated on the Real Clear Politics website.

Fox News has not yet named the specific polls it will use, but the network has stated that candidates must place "in the top 10 of an average of the five most recent national polls, as recognized by Fox News leading up to Aug. 4 at 5 p.m./ET." The selected polls "must be conducted by major, nationally recognized organizations that use standard methodological techniques."

Will Fox use only its own surveys or those from other national news organizations, such as NBC/Wall Street Journal? Or will it also take into account prominent academic polls?

The questions don't stop there. Network officials have said that in the event of a tie, more than 10 people could be included. But what's a tie? Will the deciders round to the nearest decimal point? What about margin of error?

It's a "dumb way to weed out the field," Graham said. And Santorum called it a "miscarriage."

In recent weeks, candidates have been trying to boost their poll numbers. A super PAC backing Perry, for instance, launched a $1 million national advertising campaign on cable TV, conservative talk radio, and the Web.

Santorum had five live national TV appearances Wednesday, including on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show. And on Friday, Christie started showing a spot on Fox News. Insiders peg the cost at about $250,000.

Making the cut is half the battle. After all, it's axiomatic that mistakes on air can crush a campaign.

"If you're in the debate, it's easier to sink your candidacy than to elevate it," said Benoit, the Ohio University professor.

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