Republicans will raise the curtain on the 2012 presidential campaign at a Greenville, S.C., debate Thursday without many of the expected leading actors on the stage.
The debate, to be broadcast nationally by the Fox News Channel, is the first of the 2012 campaign. But it likely will feature only lesser-known and long-shot candidates.
Expected GOP front-runners, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have said they are skipping the debate.
Other potential big-name candidates, including former GOP vice-presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, have yet to say whether they will run. Others, such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, have yet to take the official steps toward candidacy required by Fox News to participate.
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Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is the highest-profile GOP candidate to say he will take part in the debate.
The S.C. GOP will announce the final lineup today, and it is expected to include Godfather’s Pizza founder Herman Cain, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Despite the absences, S.C. Republican Party officials and political observers say the debate will fill its role, helping introduce the slow-developing field to viewers and voters.
“It will give people they (voters) don’t know well an opportunity to be heard,” said veteran GOP campaign adviser Richard Quinn of Columbia, who has said he will work for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman if he enters the race. “There should be some fireworks.”
South Carolina is a key early-voting state, particularly for Republicans. The winner of the state’s first-in-the-South GOP primary has gone on to win the Republican nomination in every cycle since 1980.
S.C. GOP executive director Joel Sawyer said the 1,900 seats at the Peace Center will be filled Thursday. The debate is the kickoff to the party’s annual major fundraiser Friday — featuring a candidate forum — and the state party’s annual convention Saturday, where the Republican Party will chose a new S.C. chairman.
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