COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The lead-off debate of the Republican presidential race is set for Thursday night in South Carolina with just five candidates participating.
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It's poised to be a low-key affair — much like the sluggish early days of the Republican contest itself.
The Republican who is so far leading the 2012 nomination field, Mitt Romney, won't be attending the debate. Neither will any other big-name Republicans weighing bids, like Sarah Palin, or celebrity hopefuls, like Donald Trump.
"Without any of the front-runners, you really can't call it a debate," said Rick Beltram, a former Republican chairman in Spartanburg County.Stark contrast: Obama's ground zero visit vs. GOP debate
Still, Republicans hope to get some publicity from the event in the city of Greenville, because South Carolina is an early primary state important for Republican hopes of retaking the White House from Democratic President Barack Obama.Story: Republicans pursue wider field for 2012 race
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 Republican Party paperwork and paid $25,000 to get on the primary ballot.Story: Santorum, Huntsman take next steps toward 2012 run
The name game
Most of the five barely register in national polls and surveys in early voting primary and caucus states, and are using the debate to gain attention.
It's all but certain they'll be asked to weigh in on Osama bin Laden's death as well as the sluggish economy.
Mostly, the little-known candidates will seek to introduce themselves to the Republican primary electorate in South Carolina and beyond — and avoid making gaffes that could come back to haunt them.The 2012 GOP field's name (ID) game
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.Romney to skip Thursday GOP debate
Several Republicans keeping the door open on bids also aren't attending.
They include Palin, the 2008 Republican 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.Story: Gingrich primes White House announcement, opens HQ
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.
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