Republican presidential hopefuls square off in first debate of primary season

Amanda Carey | Contributor

Greenville, S.C. – The first Republican presidential primary debate of the 2012 election season will be set in Greenville, South Carolina Thursday night at 9 p.m. The debate will be hosted by Fox News and moderated by Bret Baier.

But in the days preceding the debate, the headlines have focused more on who won’t be attending, rather than the candidates that are already confirmed participants. Five potential candidates will take to the stage at the Peace Center Thursday night:  former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and businessman Herman Cain.

Noticeably absent will be heavyweights like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, as well as former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and real estate mogul Donald Trump.

Huntsman, Trump, and Romney, however, are all planning visits to the Palmetto State later in the month.

Fox News set strict guidelines for candidates to qualify for participation in the debate, including reaching at least one percent in national polls and filing a $25,000 fee to be on the state’s primary ballot next year.

One presidential hopeful – openly-gay Republican political consultant Fred Karger – is making some noise over the requirements, and blames them for his inability to participate. His argument is that he has been left off the few national polls that have been done this cycle, which has prevented him from reaching the required one percent mark.

“Your criteria were apparently designed to keep me off of the stage at the Peace Center next Thursday night,” wrote Karger in a letter to S.C. Republican Party Chair Karen Floyd, Executive Director of the S.C. Republican Party Joel Sawyer, and Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch of Fox News Channel.

Most, however, attribute the lack of participation to a late and sputtering start to the presidential primary season. While candidates were expected to officially announce weeks and even months ago, some – like Newt Gingrich, for example – have yet to even form an official exploratory committee.

For some potential campaigns, not participating is a strategic decision to save money and avoid potential negative publicity.

Daniels called the late start to the campaign season a good thing. “It’s a darn good thing that we’ll have a nominating campaign measured in months and not years,” he said in a speech in Washington, D.C. Wednesday.

Pawlenty, however, rebuked Republicans in a recent media interview for sitting on the sidelines.

“We’ve got big challenges and it requires a big challenge and, you know, I think the time to engage President Obama is now,” said Pawlenty.

In the latest national poll of potential Republican presidential candidates, Quinnipiac showed Mitt Romney at 18 percent, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin polling at 15 percent, Donald Trump at 12 percent and Mitch Daniels with 5 percent.

Debate contenders Paul, Pawlenty, Johnson and Santorum polled at five, four, one and one percent, respectively. Cain was not included in the poll.

South Carolina’s debate will take place only days after President Obama announced that the U.S. had tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden. As a result, viewers can expect the debate to spend a significant amount of time on foreign policy issues, like unrest in the Middle East and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Before bin Laden’s demise, it was expected that the debate would focus more on economic issues.

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