GOP presidential hopefuls gather tonight in South Carolina for their first official debate of the 2012 election season. Much more has been made about who isn't participating than who is. Fox News' invitation garnered five participants, only one of whom the Washington chattering class deems a "serious" candidate. Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman Jr., and Mitch Daniels all presumably declined. Instead, viewers will be treated to the GOP's version of the Mos Eisley Cantina from the original Star Wars movie; would-be candidates of all political shapes, sizes, and species--some of whom the majority of the viewing public may have never even heard of before. It's worth briefly noting who will be there and just who they are.
The debate "front-runner" Tim Pawlenty was early to announce his presidential exploratory committee. Pawlenty, a former two-term governor of Minnesota, sought out and hired top campaign talent early. The challenge for Pawlenty is whether his crack campaign staff can help him overcome the "nice guy, but..." label that has plagued his name id numbers from the beginning. By all accounts, it will take a perfect Republican storm to beat President Obama in 2012, and one can't help but associate Pawlenty with the famous line spoken by Oz to Dorothy after she pulls back the curtain in Emerald City: "I'm a good man, but a very bad wizard." [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the GOP 2012 candidates.]
Ron Paul, the physician, 2008 GOP candidate, current congressman from Texas and self-styled Barry Goldwater incarnate is credited by many as the informal founder of the Tea Party movement. Paul's swashbuckling, take-no prisoners approach to public policy has garnered him a devout following and likely helped get his son elected to the U.S. Senate. Expect Paul to echo the same script he's been touting for six years now: demolish the Fed, pull all troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan (watch his response to that given the events of recent days), and zero out the income tax. Paul's problem is the opposite of Pawlenty's--his name ID is high--but the mainstream just isn't buying the libertarianism on steroids he is selling. [See political cartoons about the Tea Party.]
Former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum considered himself a culture warrior before being a culture warrior was cool. Santorum is a devout social conservative who speaks directly to the more spiritual base of the GOP. Beaten badly for re-election to his Senate seat in 2006, it's hard to envision Santorum capturing lightning in a bottle, especially given that the majority of Republican voters have shied away from social issues and instead focused more on the economy and jobs.
The least known of the five tonight are Godfather's pizza magnate Herman Cain and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson. Cain has built a solid reputation as a successful businessman, but his political adventures are proving to bear less fruit. Cain's lack of political experience and low name ID could prove difficult to overcome. Johnson, a libertarian former governor of New Mexico is the longest shot and potentially the quirkiest of tonight's five participants. Johnson's major national policy platform that has garnered him the most attention is his proposal to legalize marijuana.
Spoiler alert--aside from the numerous questions about the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, the economy and jobs, look for the moderators to query the debaters regarding their stances on illegal immigration. It is Cinco de Mayo, after all, and the role of Hispanic voters continues to evolve as one of the most important in presidential politics. President Obama's domestic policy team is already ramping up talk of immigration reform as a likely wedge issue in the 2012 debate, and the GOP nominee will need a comprehensive and targeted approach if he or she is to be successful.
Pour your favorite Mexican beverage tonight and let the political fiesta begin.