Ready for the First Presidential Primary Debate? The GOP Isn't

Four years and two days ago, a crowded field of Republican White House hopefuls gathered in Simi Valley, Calif., for the first GOP debate of the 2008 election cycle, co-hosted by MSNBC and Politico.

Participants included all the marquee names who would shape the Republican primary race -- John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee -- along with a broad roster of second-tier candidates, such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), Sen. Sam Brownback (Kansas), former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, Reps. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and Tom Tancredo (Colo.), and former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson.

Tonight at 9 p.m. EST, Republican eyes will turn to their party's first debate of the 2012 cycle, and find significantly fewer candidates taking the stage.

Co-hosted in Greenville, S.C., by the South Carolina Republican Party and Fox News, Thursday's hour-long debate will feature just five candidates:

  • Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather's Pizza
  • Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico
  • Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota
  • Ron Paul
  • Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.)

Some of the biggest names flirting with or planning presidential bids will be absent. Not making it to the stage will be: Sarah Palin, Romney, Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.).

Perhaps invitees were scared off by the debate's entry requirements, one of which involves filing for candidacy in South Carolina, which can be done by paying the state party $25,000.

That also poses an issue for potential 2012 candidates who haven't yet jumped fully into the race: By entering this debate, they would formally become presidential candidates and have to start disclosing their finances to the Federal Election Commission.

Some of the more potentially serious 2012 contenders are merely "testing the waters" of candidacy, as campaign regulations call it, but are not yet formally declared candidates. Some have formed "exploratory committees" to explore the possibilities of their respective bids, before announcing whether or not they'll run.

They, too, are not yet formally candidates for office -- and so don't have to report their finances to the Federal Election Commission.

By filing for candidacy in South Carolina, they would formally become candidates and have to begin filing regular financial disclosures with the FEC, as the FEC specifies that an individual is no longer "testing the waters" when he/she "takes action to qualify for the ballot," among other criteria.

All five candidates appearing in Thursday's debate have filed for candidacy, according to spokespeople for two of the debators, meaning they now are all candidates for president.

Not many Republicans have been ready to make that statement yet. Gingrich, for one, says he will announce next week whether he's running.

"The timing to meet the S.C. requirements unfortunately conflicted with our time line," Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler wrote in an email.

Another storyline in the South Carolina debate: former GOP strategist Fred Karger, the first openly gay major-party presidential candidate has lobbied hard to get into this debate, sending multiple letters to the state party, but it looks like he won't be in it.

An entry requirement listed at the outset by Fox and the South Carolina GOP is that entrants "[m]ust have garnered at least an average of one percent in five national polls based on most recent polling leading up to April 29th, 2011." Since pollsters haven't included Karger in national surveys, he hasn't had a chance to average 1 percent. Fox has since included him in one national poll, and Karger did reach 1 percent.

Given the news of the week, the debate may well be dominated by foreign policy and homeland security issues, but its real value is that it provides the first formal look at the only Republicans willing, at this point, to step forward and be candidates.