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Published: Thursday, 5/5/2011

GOP stars are skipping 1st debate

Lesser names to show up in S.C.


GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Don't tune in looking for Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann aren't making the trip. Sarah Palin? Donald Trump? Not a chance.

The first Republican presidential primary debate, set here at 9 p.m. Thursday to air on Fox News, features a quintet of lesser-known candidates as the bigger names weigh whether to get into the race.

"It's mostly B Teamers," said Barry Wynn, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "It's the long-shot debate."

Pennsylvania's former Sen. Rick Santorum, will be joined by U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and former pizza chain CEO Herman Cain.

On May 3, 2007, in California, the first GOP debate attracted 10 candidates, including Mr. Romney, Mr. Huckabee, and the eventual nominee, Sen. John McCain.

Asked whether he was disappointed that the debate didn't draw more headliners, South Carolina GOP spokesman Joel Sawyer said by e-mail: "We are pleased with our debate field and think it will be a great event."

It's a field of dark horses, led by Mr. Pawlenty, who boasts a record of working with Democrats in a state better-known for producing liberals -- such as the late Hubert Humphrey, a former U.S. vice president and U.S. senator. Mr. Pawlenty, who Mr. McCain passed over in 2008 for Mrs. Palin, could use a visibility boost.

Mr. Santorum has visited key states South Carolina, Iowa, and New Hampshire more than any other potential candidate. He's helped by his social conservatism record and national profile gained from two U.S. Senate terms, though his 18-point drubbing by Sen. Bob Casey in his 2006 re-election bid raises questions about his chances nationally.

Mr. Cain of Atlanta is a fiery speaker and Tea Party favorite who once owned Godfather's Pizza and now hosts a radio show. Mr. Paul and Mr. Johnson are anti-war libertarians, with Mr. Paul boasting a national presence after his 2008 run and standing as an intellectual father of the Tea Party.

Fox News and the state party required that all participants officially declare their candidacy or form an exploratory committee with the Federal Election Commission, a step many big-name candidates have been unwilling to take.

Billionaire developer Mr. Trump has attracted attention through interviews and a trip to New Hampshire, but he has said he won't decide until next month. Mrs. Palin, the former governor of Alaska, has been cryptic about her plans and has made few public appearances.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is weighing a run but told reporters Wednesday that it will be weeks before he decides. Jon Huntsman, Utah's former governor and returning Obama Administration ambassador to China, began raising cash for a potential run this week but is not near to a decision.

Mr. Huntsman will address the University of South Carolina's commencement on Saturday. Mr. Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, and Ms. Bachmann, a congressman from Minnesota, have made many trips to the state but don't meet the filing requirements for the debate.

Scott Reed, who ran Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole's 1996 bid, said this campaign is unfolding later because of several factors, from the unpredictability of the Tea Party to the U.S. House GOP agenda sucking up attention. "It's not going to have the impact I believe the South Carolina GOP wished," Mr. Reed said. "They should have listened to everybody's advice and waited. … As a candidate, you can't let debate schedules and straw polls set your strategy."

This is especially true for Mr. Romney, the well-funded former Massachusetts governor who is deemed the nominal front-runner. Mr. Romney is eligible for the debate, having formed an exploratory committee, but he's declining to attend.

Mr. Reed said Mr. Romney learned from 2008 that a fast start doesn't always mean a winning finish, which could explain his rare public appearances and interviews.

But South Carolinians, whose primary is usually the third ballot-casting in the presidential schedule and the South's first -- are eager to go.

Glenn McCall, head of the GOP in York County on the North Carolina border, said candidates who make inroads now will be remembered. "We're extremely happy for those who have stepped up and want to participate in the debate," he said. "I'm personally disappointed with some of the front-runners who have not filed paperwork. … I think patience is running out in our state with these guys."

Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Daniel Malloy is a Washington-based Post-Gazette staff writer.

Contact him at: dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 202-445-9980.

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