Greenville, S.C. — Perhaps the most conspicuous thing about the first GOP presidential debate for 2012 are the elephants not in the room: Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin, among other potential candidates who will not be stepping behind the podium tonight.
Instead, the stage will be shared by an eclectic mix of personalities: former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, and Rep. Ron Paul.
Of those five, many consider Pawlenty, who graced the cover of National Review in March, to have the most serious shot at the Republican nomination. But residents in the early-primary state of South Carolina have mostly said, “Tim who?”
In a poll of 1,363 people conducted by Winthrop University last month, 66 percent of respondents said they hadn’t heard enough about Pawlenty to form an opinion — the highest figure among the eight candidates polled. (Santorum, the only other participant in tonight’s debate polled, came in a close second with 63 percent.)
For contrast, only 16 percent of respondents hadn’t heard enough about Huckabee or Romney, who finished second and fourth, respectively, in South Carolina’s 2008 primary behind the eventual GOP nominee, John McCain.
This gap in familiarity could help explain why Pawlenty is in Greenville tonight, while other rumored presidential hopefuls are not. Asked about the debate strategy, Alex Conant, a spokesman for Pawlenty, told NRO that the event “is an opportunity to make the case against President Obama in front of a nationwide audience and talk about our records.”
On the other hand, those who still have name recognition left over from the shock-and-awe TV air war three years ago probably can afford to bide their time.
A relatively unpopulated stage could give Pawlenty time to shine tonight and a boost to go with it. the question is whether he can grab it without getting too bruised.
Meanwhile, he has been nudging the rest of the field to — in my words, not his — quit pussyfooting around and get in the race, already.
“I hope all of the serious or even potential candidates are going to get in this debate,” Pawlenty said on Fox News last week. “Because, look, this is a president who’s got his challenges, but he’s going to raise a billion dollars. He’s a very gifted campaigner, and we’ve got to start taking the case to the American people why he should be fired.”