Don’t look now, but we’re only 48 hours or so away from the first presidential nomination debate of 2012, coming to us live and direct from, natch, Fox News Channel.

Or at least that’s what they’re billing it as. Mitt Romney is exercising the traditional front-runner’s strategy of skipping the debate, leaving Tim Pawlenty to face off with Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Gary Johnson and Herman Cain. That’s according to FNC’s Carl Cameron; the New York Times also has Buddy Roemer planning to participate. No word, alas, on Ten Commandments Judge Roy Moore. Or Alan Keyes. Or that crazy guy who hangs out in front of my local supermarket and yells stuff.

I kid. But, you know, how else is anyone supposed to react to the idea that this is a major-party presidential debate? Other than Pawlenty, who has an excellent chance, none of these folks — whatever their merits otherwise — has a plausible shot at getting the GOP nomination. Romney’s strategy seems right to me: appearing with this crowd isn’t going to do much for Pawlenty’s stature, while going head-to-head with a guy who came close to capturing the crown in 2008 might well do that.  Better yet, FNC and the Republican Party might take the bin Laden killing as a pretext to just postpone the whole thing for six months or so.

I’m not one who thinks that the GOP field is particularly weak; it’s missing a first-tier front-runner, but if it winds up including Romney, Pawlenty, Huck and Daniels, that’s four plausible presidents. And there’s always the possibility of a full campaign by the Sage of Wasilla. There’s no point in judging strength-of-field by any measure that’s overly sensitive to how many Mike Gravels show up. But it has to be a bit of an embarrassment to have too many Gary Bauers and too few Bob Doles, or even Phil Gramms, in the first post parade.