Who to Watch in the First GOP Primary Debate


For those of you not hitting the bars this Cinco de Mayo, the first 2012 Republican presidential primary debate airs tonight at 9 p.m. EST. Co-hosted by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party, the GOP candidates who are fully in the race will talk issues. All five of them.

The lineup, which will meet in Greenville, S.C., and be quizzed by a panel of moderators including Juan Williams, consists of:

Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather's Pizza

Ron Paul, Texas congressman

Rick Santorum, former Pennsylvania senator

Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota

Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico

It's a starkly different picture from the 2008 election cycle, when the first primary debate was packed with marquee-name contenders. This time the bigger names in the field, like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and, um, Donald Trump — who have at least hinted at presidential bids without actually filing for candidacy — are sitting this one out.


I asked Donna Brazile, newly released from her tenure as interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, to size up her party's competition. Despite the lack of a front-runner, which has led to countless declarations that tonight's debate is a nonevent, she's looking forward to tuning in.

"I tend to like people like Ron Paul and other underdogs who may be ideologically rigid, but at the same time I find them to be the most entertaining," she said. "I've also taken great interest in the full Republican field, especially after a contentious midterm season. I want to figure out who the ultraconservatives on the far right are voting for, and whether there are any moderate voices left in the Republican Party."

According to a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey, President Obama is polling ahead of all the probable GOP candidates. Closest behind him is the not-so-moderate Mike Huckabee — an ominous sign for center-right candidates, who may have better luck just shooting for a VP slot. But most participants in tonight's debate will no doubt play to the South Carolina audience with rhetorical red meat. Even if they're long shots for the nomination, it's refreshing to see other voices get the microphone for a change (and like Brazile says, it should at least be entertaining).

Are you tuning in?