The first Republican presidential debate will go on as planned in South Carolina tonight, despite the fact only one participant, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, is seen as a leading contender for the party's nomination next year.
The South Carolina Republican Party on Wednesday released the list of participants who had met the necessary criteria to participate in the debate — a list that also shows that the Republican primary has yet to get off the ground.
Those who will participate in the debate, co-sponsored by Fox News Channel, also include former CEO of Godfather's Pizza Herman Cain, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. The debate will be broadcast live on Fox News Channel at 9 p.m. ET.
Although the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation pushed its Republican primary debate from May to September, Fox News and the South Carolina GOP chose to press ahead despite the unsettled field.
South Carolina GOP Chairwoman Karen Floyd described the debate as a snapshot in time. "Our role is not to set the field, our role is to showcase the field that's out there," she said.
Chris Lawton, executive director of the South Carolina Greenville Tea Party, said that if the participants in the debate have met all the requirements, there is no reason to dismiss them. "If they are stepping out in a leadership position we shouldn't downplay their efforts until we hear what they have to say."
The debate is just one of several events that will allow those who participate to make connections in the Palmetto State.Before the forum, the potential candidates have been invited to participate in a Greenville Tea Party rally. And on Friday night, they have been invited to speak at the annual Silver Elephant Banquet, the party's biggest fundraiser.
South Carolina plays a pivotal role in presidential primaries, hosting one of the four early nominating contests. Still, several potential candidates have cited the debate requirements as one reason they will sit this one out. In order to participate, contenders must have registered an exploratory committee or have announced a formal bid for the presidency, received at least 1% in five national polls, and paid the $25,000 fee to have their name put on the South Carolina primary ballot.
Rick Tyler, a spokesman for former House speaker Newt Gingrich, said last week that it was unlikely Gingrich would make Wednesday's deadline but was confident that his absence would not hurt his chances. Gingrich launched a "testing the waters" committee in March, but the distinction falls short of a formal declaration of candidacy.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who finished in fourth place in South Carolina's 2008 primary, has formed an exploratory committee but will not attend the forum. Romney spokesman Matt Rhoades said earlier this week that "it's still early, the field is too unsettled, and he's not yet an announced candidate."
Former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who resigned his post last week to mull a bid, gives a commencement address at the University of South Carolina on Saturday.
J. Warren Tompkins, a former top South Carolina consultant for Romney in 2008, said the debate could help unknown candidates raise their profile, but there was little reason for more seasoned contenders to participate. "There's an upside to those who are not very well known, have not run before and are trying to get out there and get some name ID and try to advance their ideas," he said.