Rick Perry could still rise from the ashes like a phoenix. His 2012 campaign was disastrous for three reasons we won’t bother recapping here, but when he re-entered the arena as a candidate for the GOP nomination in 2016, he displayed a combination of self-awareness and surprising thoughtfulness that told us more about his political makeover than a million pairs of hipster eyeglasses ever could. His image rehab was proceeding apace, and he even managed to recover from early stumbles — not to mention his indictment — well enough to raise a more-than-respectable $17 million in his first fundraising report.

But none of that was enough to get him into the first major debate of the 2016 campaign season (yes, it’s the 2016 campaign season now). The GOP field is crowded, and Fox News, the sponsor of the debate, opted for a European soccer-style system of relegation and promotion to determine which of the seventeen candidates would be debating in primetime, and who would be making their case at a second-tier debate. And when the news came down Tuesday, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and John Kasich made the A-team.

Losing out to Kasich — the Ohio governor whose personal charisma is, shall we say, less than striking — is a low point for a candidate who has seen many previous nadirs. At the same time, though, if there’s a Republican candidate who can benefit from spending some time in the D-League, it’s Perry. If he is ready to make a run in his 2016 campaign, then practicing on a stage alongside not-ready-for-primetime-players such as Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, Lindsay Graham, Jim Gilmore, and George Pataki is a great opportunity. Perry is going to need to impress people in order to successfully complete a rehabilitation of his image, and it’s easier to impress people when you’re standing next to a band of political misfits. With that in mind, here’s the best and worst case scenarios for the Perry campaign.

Best Case Scenario: By the time delegates actually start getting assigned, Perry’s still hanging around, and the fact that he didn’t even qualify for the first debate becomes another part of his underdog narrative. It’s the sort of detail that makes scrappy Rick Perry a surprise success story in the campaign. If the race in the spring is between, say, Bush, Rubio, Paul, Christie, and Perry, he’s got a path to victory — a more compelling narrative than Jeb Bush, a stronger record than Rubio or Paul, and broader Republican appeal than Christie.

Of course, for that to happen, there are other candidates that’ll need to flame out. Ted Cruz can claim some of that Texas credibility that Perry carries, and Scott Walker has the executive experience without an “oops” in his history. As long as Walker is in the race, it’s hard to see how Perry captures that share of the GOP voters — but Walker hasn’t had a chance to flub yet, and much of the Republican field is still untested enough that the possibility of some spectacular crashes from currently viable candidates is a possibility. Add to that the fact that the nominal frontrunner, Trump, isn’t really in this for the long haul, and the war of attrition aspect of a campaign among 17 challengers means that things will whittle down to a manageable number before too long. All Perry has to do is stick around to get a serious look. He may remain the House Greyjoy-like longshot in this particular game of thrones, but there’s a lot of campaign left to run.

Worst Case Scenario: Even on a stage with Bobby Jindal, Lindsay Graham, and Rick Santorum, Perry is capable of looking bad. He’s not a dumb man, but he’s definitely exhibited legitimate problems in a live debate setting, so it’s possible that Perry can’t even graduate from the kiddie table. One more “oops” moment — or even an “accident/incident” swap — would reinforce the “Rick Perry is a laughingstock” narrative that could dry up his current support.

But Perry doesn’t even need to make a mistake (or, say, get convicted on the charges for which he’s currently under indictment) to have a worst-case scenario happen. The fact that a reality TV star is currently the GOP frontrunner tells us as much about the fact that the party lacks a clear consensus leader as it does anything about Trump himself. But any time that Perry spends logging 5 p.m. debates with Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum is time that Scott Walker and Rand Paul are spending introducing themselves to voters who are currently looking for someone to believe in. That means that if it takes Perry a while to get onto the big stage, he could find himself losing much-needed ground. It’s possible that if his debate performance impresses voters, Scott Walker will be the hot candidate for the GOP come spring. Six months is forever in politics, which is a double-edged sword: It means that Perry can wait out a crowded field on his $17 million and continue his image-rehab campaign, but it also means that by the time delegates start actually getting assigned, this wide-open field could be considerably more narrow.

Either way, Thursday is our first chance to see the top of the Republican field, and that includes a lot of people who aren’t Rick Perry. That alone isn’t great news for the former governor—but with some luck, it doesn’t need to spell his doom.

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)