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By David Lauter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — With Fox News due to announce Tuesday which candidates will be onstage for the first debate of the GOP primary season, the fight for the final slot seems to be a battle of governors — Rick Perry versus Chris Christie.

The GOP has 17 candidates who have announced that they’re seeking the nomination, so debate sponsors have to find some way to cull the field. Fox, the broadcast sponsor for Thursday’s session, announced in the spring that 10 candidates would get to debate, picked based on who has the highest average standings in the five most recent national polls released by Tuesday.

So far, the most recent polls all tell pretty much the same story: Donald Trump in the lead, followed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and current Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

After those three, the recent polls show five other candidates bunched fairly tightly, all getting support in the mid- to high single digits — Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, along with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon.

That accounts for eight slots, with three candidates consistently occupying the next tier — Perry, Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Whether by luck or smart tactics, Kasich announced his candidacy last month, just in time to be enjoying the usual announcement bounce in polls as the debaters get picked. The bounce is not much, but so far, it has been enough to put him ahead of one or both of the others in three of the four most recent surveys.

If that pattern holds, Kasich would be in the debate, which will be held in his home state, leaving Christie and Perry as the final two for the last slot. Whoever loses out would join the lower tier of candidates at a forum a few hours before the debate.

Fox is likely to announce its poll results Tuesday, which will certainly figure into the polling average.

Beyond that, however, network officials have given themselves considerable wiggle room on how to make the final decision. Although they’ve said they will average the most recent polls, they’ve left some key details undefined, such as how they will round off percentages, what they’ll consider to be a tie and whether they will use a simple arithmetical average or one that weights polls by sample size. Given that the candidates are tightly grouped together, those factors could all affect the outcome.

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Republican U.S. presidential candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie participates in the Voters First Presidential Forum in Manchester, New Hampshire August 3, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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