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Nati Harnik, File, Associated Press
FILE - In this Oct. 31, 2015, file photo, Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., speaks at the Iowa GOP's Growth and Opportunity Party at the Iowa state fair grounds in Des Moines, Iowa.

NEWARK, N.J. — Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee have been bumped from the main stage at next week's GOP presidential debate, while George Pataki and Lindsey Graham have been cut from the lineup altogether.

Debate sponsor Fox Business Network announced the moves Thursday evening, dealing a blow to Christie and Huckabee as they struggled to stand out in the crowded Republican field amid signs of momentum in states where the first primary contests will be held.

The decision underscores concerns about the pivotal role that national opinion surveys have been playing in shaping the contest for the GOP nomination. Statistically, pollsters say, there is no significant difference between candidates lumped together near the bottom of the pack in national polls, which typically have a margin of error of 3 percentage points or more.

"I tell people, 'Ignore the national polls and just follow those early states,'" said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who argues that early opinion surveys are notoriously unreliable. "Except that now national polls drive the debates, and debates drive the polling."

According to debate criteria issued by Fox Business last week, candidates must score 2.5 percent or higher in an average of the four most recent major polls conducted through Nov. 4 to be featured in the prime-time debate. They must hit the 1 percent mark to qualify for an undercard debate airing before the main event.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry provides a cautionary tale of the potential impact. Fundraising dollars dried up after Perry was relegated to the undercard debate earlier in the year.

Pataki, the former New York governor, and Graham, a South Carolina senator, already faced a tough road to the GOP nomination. Their omission even from the undercard debates will make it even harder for them to convince voters — and donors — they have a viable path to the nomination.

"It is ironic that the only veteran in the race is going to be denied a voice the day before Veterans Day," Graham campaign manager Christian Ferry said in a statement. "In the end, the biggest loser tonight is the American people and the Republican presidential primary process that has been hijacked by news outlets."

Pataki spokeswoman Alicia Preston in a statement earlier Thursday that the focus on national polling undermined candidates' efforts in the early-voting states where they spend much of their time.

"National news networks are doing the job that has always been left to the people in individual states like New Hampshire," she said. "It's the voters' right and responsibility to choose candidates. This national focus diminishes the significance of the Primary process."

Peoples reported from Manchester, New Hampshire.

Follow Jill Colvin and Steve Peoples on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/sppeoples and http://twitter.com/colvinj