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Short on Big Names, GOP Debaters Will Vie to Stand Out in S.C.

Short on Big Names, GOP Debaters Will Vie to Stand Out in S.C.

By Scott Conroy - May 4, 2011

With most of the prospective candidates sitting out the first Republican presidential debate of the 2012 cycle, South Carolina Republican operative Bob McAlister isn't exactly counting down the minutes until the festivities kick off in Greenville on Thursday night.

"It's like a beauty contest where all the women are ugly," McAlister said. "It's just mind-boggling that we're this far along in the political silly season and there's no one of major stature that appears to be interested so far."

McAlister spoke for many in conveying his disappointment with the level of participation in what has in past cycles been a major milestone to kick off the presidential race.

With former Massachusetts Gov. Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich sending their regrets, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty will be the only prospective candidate considered to be in the top tier of the GOP field who will be in Greenville Thursday night for the debate that is being sponsored by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party.

Pawlenty will be joined onstage by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, businessman Herman Cain, and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

With potentially strong contenders like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee continuing to mull their own presidential deisions, the all-but-declared candidates who have agreed to participate in the debate could appear more like the Feeble Five than the cream of the GOP's crop.

The historic killing of Osama bin Laden complicates matters further politically, as the still-developing story seems certain to drown out any domestic political news throughout the week as details continue to emerge and implications are hashed out.

Pawlenty appeared to acknowledge the danger of being grouped with the smaller fish when he encouraged likely candidates who were holding out to join him at the debate.

"President Obama's failed policies have seriously jeopardized our nation's future and it's time for Republicans to show leadership and engage in the battle of ideas," Pawlenty said in a statement last Friday.

Still, the challenge of generating extensive interest in the debate comes with the chance for participants to make a splash in front of a national audience.

"The debate could actually make some news if there's an opportunity for somebody to really set themselves apart," said Greenville-based Republican strategist Chip Felkel. "It won't happen if there's no fireworks. So strategically, if you're not well known, you're going to have to be willing to make some news."

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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