What to Expect from the Niche Candidates in the First GOP Debate

The debate can be fun even if stars like Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee won't show

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In your typical presidential primary debates, there are a lot of "credible" establishment candidates, with a few single-issue and vanity candidates sprinkled in to offer the potentially career-killing but occasionally entertaining one-liners. For an example of the latter: remember in 2003, when despite then-President Bush's stellar anti-terror credentials, Carol Moseley Braun referred to al Qaeda's now-deceased leader as "Osama been Missin'"? But at the first Republican debate for 2012, issue candidates dominate the lineup, which is now official. The five debaters are Herman Cain, Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and Tim Pawlenty.

Only Pawlenty seems to qualify as something other than a niche candidate, though he consistently polls in the single digits. Though Republican leaders are nervous that fringe candidates like Donald Trump--who won't even be debating--are coloring voters' view of the party, the lack of GOP stars doesn't mean the debate won't be fun. Below, a sampling of the entertainment we might, if we're lucky, get Thursday, based on the Internet memes and issues that are already starting to attach themselves to the candidates.

Gary Johnson
Resume: Former governor of New Mexico
Issue: Weed
Key quote: "I never exhaled."

Ron Paul
Resume: Congressman from Texas, repeat presidential candidate
Issue: Abolishing the Fed
Key quote: "There is a law on the books that says you are not allowed to counterfeit, and the biggest counterfeiter in the world is the Federal Reserve. They just print money, trillions of dollars, and they give it out to their friends."

Rick Santorum
Resume: Former Pennsylvania senator
Issue: God
Key quote: Defending his 2003 statement that allowing gay marriage could lead to allowing "man on dog," Santorum explained, "It's not homophobic. It's a legal argument, and it's a correct legal argument. In fact, that's exactly what’s happening. We went from Lawrence v. Texas to now a constitutional right to same-sex marriage and they're going into a constitutional right to polyamorous relationships. This is the slippery slope that we’re heading down, and I can't buy it."

Herman Cain
Resume: Former CEO for Godfather’s Pizza
Issue: Pizza?
Key quote: On why he wouldn't hire Muslims: "There is this creeping attempt, there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government. This is what happened in Europe. And little by little, to try and be politically correct, they made this little change, they made this little change. And now they’ve got a social problem that they don’t know what to do with hardly."

Tim Pawlenty
Resume: Former governor of Minnesota
Issue: I am not as weird as the rest of these guys
Key quote: Explaining his views on cap and trade, Pawlenty said, "Have I changed by position? Yes. But I'm not going to be cute about it, hem and haw, be dippy and dancy about it. Just saying yeah, it was a mistake, it was stupid. It was wrong. ... In general, my record, both as governor for eight years and as a legislator years before that, including as majority leader, is an undeniably conservative record. ... Now have I had a few clunkers along the way? Yeah, but anybody who's running who has been in office, has a few clunkers. I think mine are fewer and less severe than most."

Photo by Reuters.

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