First GOP debate likely to be a low-key affair

AP News
Posted: May 04, 2011 4:19 PM
First GOP debate likely to be a low-key affair

The one to beat in the GOP presidential field, Mitt Romney, won't attend the first debate of the party's 2012 nomination race. Neither will any other big-name Republicans weighing bids, like Sarah Palin, or celebrity hopefuls, like Donald Trump.

And, with Osama bin Laden's death commanding the public's attention, the political spotlight will be turned hundreds of miles to the north as President Barack Obama visits New York's ground zero days after American forces killed the terrorist behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

Even so, the lead-off debate of the Republican presidential race is set to go on as planned Thursday night in Greenville, S.C. With only five candidates participating, it's poised to be a low-key affair much like the sluggish early days of the Republican contest itself.

"Without any of the front-runners, you really can't call it a debate," said Rick Beltram, a former Spartanburg County GOP chairman.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are among those slated to attend. Two others with even less name recognition, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and pizza magnate Herman Cain, also will be on stage.

They're the only candidates who met the sponsors' criteria to participate. Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party required all participants to have: formed a presidential exploratory committee, filed state GOP paperwork and paid $25,000 to get on the primary ballot.

Most of the five barely register in national polls and surveys in early voting primary and caucus states, and are using debate to gain attention.

It's all but certain they'll be asked to weigh in on bin Laden's death as well as the sluggish economy. Mostly, the little-known candidates will seek to introduce themselves to the GOP primary electorate in South Carolina and beyond _ and avoid making gaffes that could come back to haunt them.

Criticism of Obama, the Democrat they hope to have the chance to challenge next year, is likely. And the candidates may even seek to try to differentiate themselves from Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who many consider the closest to a front-runner in a field that lacks one.

Romney has created an exploratory committee but he opted out of participating. He's been choosing his audiences carefully, and his advisers see little benefit in Romney attending.

"It's still early, the field is too unsettled, and he's not yet an announced candidate," Matt Rhoades, a top Romney adviser, said in a statement.

Several Republicans keeping the door open on bids also aren't attending.

They include Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee; Mike Huckabee, the 2008 Iowa caucus winner; Trump, the reality TV show host; and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is expected to move closer to a full-fledged run as early as next week. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman also is considering a bid; he created a federal political action committee within days of leaving his post as the U.S. ambassador to China under Obama.

The race has gotten off to a slow start compared with past campaign seasons. That's what led sponsors of a debate scheduled for earlier this week in Simi Valley, Calif., at the Ronald Reagan presidential library to reschedule it for September.

But South Carolina's GOP and Fox News decided to press ahead.

"We are looking forward to a great debate," said South Carolina GOP Chairwoman Karen Floyd.

Not everyone thinks it will be worthwhile.

"I wish they would have postponed it until we could have the field up in front of everyone," said Beltram.

Still, former South Carolina GOP chairman Henry McMaster said the debate will help inform eager GOP activists who already are familiar with Romney, Huckabee, Palin, Trump and Gingrich and haven't had a chance to look at the lesser-known candidates.

"These are mostly new faces. That's what we need to see. We've seen the old faces," McMaster said.


Associated Press writer Philip Elliott in Washington contributed to this report.