The downtown area here was a whirl of activity Thursday as grassroots activists, GOP party leaders and political strategists gathered for the “first in the South” Republican debate, the kickoff to what has been a slow-starting presidential campaign.

At one end of Main Street, near restaurants featuring outdoor dining, reporters and staffers congregated at the Peace Center for Thursday night’s event. At the other end, tea party activists held a pre-debate rally that brought out state and local leaders.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who headlined the Greenville Tea Party event, said that the evening was about showcasing policy, not personality.

“We don’t want to hear how they are against President Obama, we want to hear what they are going to do for the people of the this country,” she said. “I want to hear how they are going to handle the labor unions...I want to see how exactly they are going to handle all of the spending problems we’ve got in D.C. and how dysfunctional it is. We want real answers. We want specifics. We’re smart here in South Carolina.”

The debate, which will air nationally on Fox News, will give this state’s primary voters an up-close look at the candidates. Going back to 1980, the Palmetto State has picked the eventual GOP nominee in every primary, and it is now is gearing up to engage potential candidates.

Five candidates will take the stage — former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

Real estate mogul Donald Trump and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), won’t be on stage, but they have visits planned later this month. Former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman is also scheduled to meet with Haley on Friday and will give a commencement address in the state on Saturday.

“We think this is the official kickoff for the South Carolina primary. Everybody who has officially declared will be here tonight,” said Joel Sawyer, spokesman for the South Carolina Republican party, a co-host of the event. “Our goal is to present the field as it is right now. It’s still forming but people will be able to get a look at it.”

Paul, a tea party darling, drew cheers at the rally, and others said they were interested in hearing from Cain, who has become a conservative grassroots favorite because of his fiery speeches at several forums in early states.

Yet the field is still unsatisfactory to some.

“I’m disappointed that we will have five onstage, but at least we are having a presidential discussion,” said Katon Dawson, a Republican strategist. “We will see who breaks out, Pawlenty, Santorum, or Paul. And the question for the [Mitt] Romney campaign is whether he will play in South Carolina.”

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and several other well-known potential candidates — former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich — won’t attend.

Pawlenty has urged would-be candidates to move more quickly in engaging Obama, and will have an opportunity Thursday night to raise his profile. So far he has continued to poll in the low single digits.

Outside the Peace Center, a large brick building that is a symbol here of a lively downtown that includes day spas, pet stores and ice cream shops, a demonstrator held a sign that said, “Thank God Osama Bin Laden is Dead.” But for some, the most pressing issues are closer to home.

“I’m more concerned with our country. I believe in the war on terror, but we need to be stronger here first and get our own yard in order before we go in someone else’s,” said Teri Starkey, 46, who has been unemployed for almost three years. “I want to hear about the jobs, and immigration and unemployment.”