The big guns are skipping the debate.
WASHINGTON - The few, the proud -- the hopeful.
That's one description for the five candidates, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, taking part in the first debate of the Republican presidential primary Thursday night in South Carolina.
The field that agreed to participate includes none of the big names considering runs in 2012, such as Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Another missing name: Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who has been testing the waters but who has yet to file formal papers with the Federal Election Commission, one of the requirements of the debate.
Election watchers say that for Pawlenty, one of the more established GOP hopefuls, the live debate on Fox News with a group of B-List GOP contenders presents both risks and opportunities. "The risk is that he is seen as one of the other marginal candidates," said Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier. "The opportunity is that he does well and emerges as first-tier talent in a second-tier group."
The other participants will be businessman Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather's Pizza; Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a perennial libertarian favorite; former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a staunch foe of abortion and same-sex rights; and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a fiscal conservative best known for his support for legalizing marijuana.
Democrats have pounced on the debate, which some have termed a festival of fringe views. "I hope South Carolina is ready for the Tea Party circus that's about to roll into town, complete with Tim Pawlenty as its self-appointed ringleader," said Josh Dorner of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
A spokesman for Pawlenty referred reporters to a statement Friday in which he said President Obama's policies have "jeopardized our nation's future and it's time for Republicans to show leadership and engage in the battle of ideas."
Romney, the presumptive GOP frontrunner, chose to skip the early debate, a reflection of his low-key primary strategy. That did not appear to be an option for Pawlenty, who has labored to win name recognition outside Minnesota.
Said Schier: "He needs all the visibility he can get."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.