The first Republican debate of the 2012 presidential race could be defined by who wasn’t there.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty will be the biggest name attending Thursday night’s gathering in South Carolina, and even he is unknown to most voters.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has formed an exploratory committee and is leading in the polls, but he has passed on attending.
“It’s still early, the field is too unsettled and he’s not yet an announced candidate,” his spokesman, Matt Rhoades, said this week.
For the candidates who are attending, the debate provides an opportunity to introduce themselves to voters in South Carolina, a key early primary state, and make the case that they are the best person to defeat President Obama.
It will also give some of the lesser-known candidates the time and space to promote their brands on national television.
Besides Pawlenty, the other Republicans in attendance will be Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and pizza magnate Herman Cain.
Big names like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will be absent since they have not taken those legal steps toward establishing a campaign.
The same goes for potential contenders such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.). Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer (R), a dark-horse candidate who’s formed an exploratory committee, wanted to attend but has not garnered the 1 percent polling average.
One of the biggest topics of the evening will likely be Osama bin Laden, even though most of the participants have already spoken out on the al Qaeda leader’s death.
The GOP contenders have frequently criticized the president’s foreign-policy and national-security posture and could receive tough questions in light of the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound.
But the economy and job creation are also likely to be discussed — both issues are the top concerns of voters, according to the polls, and almost all Republican contenders are staking their campaigns on those issues.
“I think economics will dominate the campaign next year,” Paul said during an interview on Fox Business on Tuesday.
It will be the first time this cycle Paul and Johnson, both libertarian darlings, will take the same stage.
Of the remaining participants, Pawlenty is looking to use the debate to up his low name recognition and promote his message.
Santorum, on the other hand, will likely promote his socially conservative agenda, while voters could get their first look at Cain, a favorite of many Tea Party activists.
All the likely candidates attending have a long way to go to build up a base of support.
In a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, 5 percent of Republicans said they support Paul, 4 percent back Pawlenty and Santorum and Johnson receive 1 percent each. Cain was not polled. Their total support does not equal that of the front-runner, Romney, who received 18 percent.
The debate will air at 9 p.m. EST on Fox News Channel.