Over in the Washington Post, Karen Tumulty writes:
Normally, the first debate of the presidential primary season serves as a starting gun. The one that will take place on Thursday night could sound more like a distress call. Consider the contrast with this very week four years ago, when a field of 10 Republican contenders lined up for the first time, onstage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. It included four former governors, two sitting senators, three members of the House and a former New York City mayor who had become something of a national hero for his leadership in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
That says more about the past two cycles’ insanely early, hyperactive campaign atmospheres than about the state of the GOP today. Democrats held their first debate of the 2004 cycle in May 2003. At that time, Democrats who were apoplectically furious about the Iraq war were itching to toss out George W. Bush, and their party’s candidates — from John Kerry to Dennis Kucinich to Carol Moseley Braun to Al Sharpton — were happy to oblige their appetite. There’s little to suggest that the early debates did much to help the party as a whole; they did give Howard Dean a forum to draw distinctions between himself and the Washington Democrats, declaring that he was there to represent the “Democratic wing of the Democratic party.”
Obviously, there are quite a few key Republican figures who will not be on that stage tonight. Mitt Romney is definitely running (or at least “exploring,” as the legal status puts it); Newt is expected to do so; Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are both sitting at Fox News Channel, for now. Mitch Daniels is obviously thinking it over. There’s much speculation that if none of the current candidates catch fire, than an unexpected figure — perhaps Rep. Paul Ryan — may surprise us and jump in.
Recall that the debate sponsored by Politico and NBC News was originally scheduled to occur even earlier than today. Most GOP contenders, wary of fund-raising challenges and wearing out their welcome, feel no need to begin their campaigns on the media’s timetable. Traditionally, the Ames, Iowa, straw poll in August was the first major event of the cycle (and even that has been about 50-50 in accurately predicting the ultimate winner of the Iowa caucuses). In the 2000 cycle, the first GOP debate was held in late October, and even then George W. Bush did not participate. Like tonight’s debate, that first one in 1999 mixed the semi-competitive and the longshots: Sen. John McCain, Sen. Orrin Hatch, Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, and Alan Keyes.