South Carolina Primary Debate Will Take Place Tonight, Despite The Lack Of A Compelling Reason To Do So

The first scheduled debate of the campaign season, jointly sponsored by NBC News and Politico, was supposed to have been held on May 2. But back at the end of March, the debate organizers rather astutely observed that the presumed frontrunners weren't yet running and that the campaign season had not yet really begun. Presciently, they realized that these conditions were not likely to change during the month of April, so they postponed the event until mid-September, when they might be able to present a debate that voters would find credible. That's how tonight's debate, sponsored by Fox News and the South Carolina GOP became the first debate of the 2012 campaign.

It's going to be a complete mess. The candidates that the debate organizers want won't be showing up. A pair of candidates who want to participate won't be allowed in the room. And the Associated Press is in a kerfuffle with Fox News over "restrictions placed on media access." What is the point of this debate, again?

Fox News did a round of polling during April 25-27 where they asked respondents to identify which presumed candidate they would like to see end up the GOP nominee in 2012. In that poll, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney led the field with 19 percent. He was followed by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee at 17 percent, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin at 9 percent, reality teevee host Donald Trump at 8 percent, and peripatetic perma-candidate Newt Gingrich at 7 percent. None of those people will be appearing onstage at the debate in Greenville, SC.

Instead, the field for the debate will be a bunch of lower-tier and lightly-regarded candidates, including Texas Representative Ron Paul, Godfathers Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. In that coterie, I count one candidate with an active and devoted base of support (Paul) and one candidate who could potentially obtain the approval of independent voters and elite conservative pundits (Pawlenty). The long-played out joke of this debate is that plenty of seats are available ... on the stage.

Tim Pawlenty finds himself cast as the guy who stands to gain the most, unless he's actually the guy who stands to lose the most. Pawlenty presents himself as the typical kind of candidate the GOP hopes will be left standing when the primary season runs its course: clean-cut, presentable, reasonably fluent with all the songs in the conservative hymnal and -- above all -- electable. He's worked very hard to be all things to all people: His background is straight up managerial technocrat, but over the past year of testing the waters, he's added enough Tea Party and social conservative schtick to his act to enable him to boomerang through that territory without losing too much luster to voters who crave less bomb-throwing.

Where has that gotten TPaw? Well, maybe the best thing anyone has said about him was said by David Frum, who said, "predicting Pawlenty feels like reaching the wrong answer on a math exam. You do the calculation and you arrive at the answer, Pawlenty. You think: that can’t be right. You check the formulas. Yes, you have written them down correctly. You repeat the calculation. Same answer. And it still does not feel right." And that's about that.

Trying hard at being a presidential candidate is a central part of Pawlenty's strategy. So he signed up for this debate quickly and has never wavered from participating in it. (He's actually gone so far as the criticize the no-shows for no-showing, which at the very least might help prove to Roger Ailes that Pawlenty is a team player.) If Pawlenty has a natural advantage tonight, it's that against the rest of the field, he'll stand out as the most mainstream, electable candidate. And, in turn, that might finally get the elite thinkers talking about his candidacy and its potential. As it stands at the moment, the sort of people who might naturally admire Pawlenty, like David Brooks, are all hoping that Mitch Daniels will soon arrive on the scene to be their bland, managerial savior.

The problem Pawlenty faces tonight is that with only four other candidates standing on that stage, those four other candidates might steal a lot of the focus. When debates are populated by an enormous number of candidates, the debate moderators tend to manifest front-runner bias, pushing the little-regarded candidates to the sidelines and engaging them rarely, if ever, on matters that fall outside their pet packet of issues.

But tonight, Cain and Johnson and Paul and Santorum are going to get to speak. A lot. And they could end up steering the debate off in some unexpected directions. Paul and Johnson, for example, promise a double-dose of libertarianism, and both are dead-set against the war in Afghanistan. That's forty percent of the field on stage tonight. When's the last time a GOP debate featured the possibility of an actual debate on our foreign misadventures? It could happen tonight.

And there are all sorts of landmines for Pawlenty. TPaw's been mildly wooing Christian conservatives, essentially doing just enough to get by. But how can he compete against Rick Santorum -- who more or less would, if he had his druthers, impose the Christian fundamentalist version of sharia law on the United States. Ron Paul is a great debater -- charming and ferociously consistent, he doesn't talk in party-approved talking points, and his followers know how to pack a room and stuff an after-action snap poll. And Herman Cain has so far thrived at events where his field of opponents are few. He's a powerful, brash public speaker, capable of dropping bons mots that echo long after he's left the room.

Is Pawlenty prepared to say something memorable tonight? If not, his debate opponents could steal the spotlight, and make him look foolish for not standing on the sidelines with the actual frontrunners.

Of course, those sidelines are crowded with long-shot hopefuls as well. Two guys who actually wanted to be in the room -- former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer and veteran GOP consultant/LGBT activist Fred Karger -- won't be allowed, because they've failed to hit the extra special benchmark of 1 percent in five national polls prior to the event ... which each man was invited to attend, by the way (for a time, Roemer was actually a confirmed attendee).

This requirement seems bogus to me. It is, at the very least, a cruel Catch-22: Roemer and Karger need polling recognition in order to debate, and they need to get into the debate to earn themselves some polling recognition. The debate organizers would likely say that those rules are in place in order to maintain a magical standard of participant excellence. I'd counter by saying: 1) Well, look who you ended up with and 2) It is May of 2011 -- why are we pretending the stakes are anything but perilously low?

The debate organizers aren't inclined to believe that their event is anything other than a high-stakes political tilt-a-whirl. And they went ahead and completely, unnecessarily injected some raised-stakes yesterday when they informed the Associated Press that they would not be permitted to take photographs of the debate while it was unfolding. As Michael Calderone reported on these pages, the AP did not take this news well, and issued the following statement:

These are restrictions that violate basic demands of newsgathering and differ from other debates where more access was granted. Accordingly, the AP will not staff the event in any format nor will the AP disseminate any pool photos taken by another outlet. This is consistent with longstanding policy exercised in coverage of many events.

Should access conditions change, the AP will reassess this decision and expedite a new coverage advisory if warranted.

Since this debate is supposed to be a public service to help voters decide who they want to be the GOP nominee for President, and not something that you should need the expressed written consent of Major League Baseball to reproduce, it's a puzzlement as to why Fox News and the South Carolina GOP would pointlessly piss off the Associated Press. One imagines they either believe that the product they are going to produce tonight is a precious commodity that they can't afford to share, or (more likely) an implied admission that the debate is likely to provide a moment that will embarrass everyone involved.

Either way, it's a bunk decision. And in the interest of disseminating actual visual evidence that this debate took place, I'm inviting any courtroom sketch artist, iPad doodle aficianado or artistically inclined child with understanding parents and a set of fingerpaints to please feel free to send in your artistic representations of tonight's debate, because I will publish them. (Though I'll totally understand if you want to skip this debate entirely, on the grounds that you have something better to do with the finite time you have on this earth.)

Hey, is it really too late to cancel this thing? It is? Well, that's a real pity.

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