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What to watch for in the GOP 2012 presidential debate

at 02:00 PM ET, 05/05/2011

Five likely contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination will gather in Greenville, South Carolina tonight for the first debate of the race.

But the proceedings, which get started at 9 p.m. and will air live on Fox News Channel, are as much defined by who won’t be on stage as who will be.

Not a single candidate polling in double digits in early national polling will be in attendance; that means no Mitt Romney, no Sarah Palin, no Mike Huckabee and no Newt Gingrich.

Other potential candidates who are drawing buzz — albeit for very different reasons -- in the political world — businessman Donald Trump and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels — are also taking a pass.

The lack of star power at the debate, however, doesn’t mean it is meaningless — especially for those who are actually on stage.

Below is our candidate-by-candidate analysis of what to expect tonight. And, make sure to sign on during the debate itself as the Fix posse will be live-blogging the proceedings!

Herman Cain: For many people, the first time they will lay eyes on the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza will be when he steps on stage tonight. And that’s a good thing, actually, for Cain. He is a gifted communicator who thinks well on his feet — two traits that should serve him well in a debate format. The problem for Cain is that even if he emerges as the winner of tonight’s debate — and he easily could — it’s not clear whether he has the fundraising capacity or organizational heft to capi­tal­ize.

Gary Johnson: If Cain is little known to Republican primary voters, Johnson is entirely unknown. Since leaving office in 2002 after two terms as governor of New Mexico, Johnson has planted himself firmly in the libertarian wing of the Republican party, making the legalization of marijuana one of his pet issues. Johnson is a fringe player, at best, in this debate and the race.

Ron Paul: It really doesn’t matter how Paul performs in this — or any — debate. His supporters will insist that he won while pretty much everyone else will wonder whether he is even a Republican. Paul is almost certain to find a way to play his greatest hits — a call for the recall of American troops from hotspots around the world, a pitch for a government that does best when it does nothing at all — and it’s equally certain that the more establishment candidates will blanch at his proposals. It feels like 2008 all over again.

Tim Pawlenty: The former governor of Minnesota is, by far, the most serious — in terms of an ability to be the nominee — candidate on the stage tonight. That fact means he has the most to gain or lose from his performance. Pawlenty is trying to use his participation in the debate as a pivot point to make the case that he is the only credible candidate already taking the fight to President Obama. Expect that to be a major feature of his comments in response to every question asked of him tonight. The danger for Pawlenty is that the other candidates on the stage aren’t — and don’t need to — play by the same rules as he does. While the Pauls and Johnsons of the world can stake out positions that would be entirely anathema to a general election audience because they know there is no chance they will be the nominee, Pawlenty has to be more measured and careful. If Pawlenty is smart, he will ignore all of the other candidates tonight, focusing exclusively on introducing himself to GOP primary voters and making the case against Obama.

Rick Santorum: The former Pennsylvania senator was a last-minute entrant into the debate, filing papers to establish an exploratory committee earlier this week in order to qualify. Santorum, if the early days of the campaign are any indication, will likely take the fight most aggressively to the rest of the GOP field and Obama. Santorum’s willingness to, well, go there rhetorically will draw attention to him. And, if the debate does focus heavily on foreign policy — and it well could given the news of Osama bin Laden’s death earlier this week — Santorum will be the closest thing to an expert on those issues on the stage.

 
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