GOP Debate Preview: Will Pawlenty Be a Giant–or a Pygmy?

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Brian Frank / Reuters

Tonight in South Carolina, Fox News will televise something that purports to be a 2012 Republican presidential primary debate. In truth it will be an almost entirely meaningless event. After all, most of the big-name candidates who either intend to run or are thinking about it–Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Mitch Daniels, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin–won’t be on the stage. Instead the cast will consist of four long-shot candidates–former Pennsylvania Senator/anti-abortion crusader Rick Santorum, pizza mogul Herman Cain, and the libertarians Ron Paul and Gary Johnson–plus one candidate who, though he, too, barely registers in the polls, has real support and respect within the party establishment: Tim Pawlenty.

That’s why tonight isn’t really about debating. Santorum will offer his usual refrain about the sanctity of life and the Constitution. Paul and Johnson will propound familiar libertarian themes. Cain will get people laughing (partly with him, partly at him). But most informed politicos will tune in to check out Pawlenty. He’s a relatively unfamiliar face on television, and Republicans are still gauging whether the former Minnesota governor, known as a skilled retail politicker, can convey stage presence and gravitas in a live-TV format. Pawlenty’s hope tonight is that he can set himself apart as the one serious, potential President on the stage.

But he faces a risk, too. The danger is that Pawlenty will be diminished by tonight’s B-list feel. In part because he lacks the name recognition of rivals like Gingrich and Romney, Pawlenty can’t afford to pass up the free exposure that an event like tonight’s will offer. But a lackluster performance could reinforce doubts about whether he’s just too drab to be the GOP nominee.

Here’s my bet: Pawlenty will largely ignore the rabble around him, and focus on two themes. One, that the other GOP big contenders (this means you, Mitt) should get their hands dirty and join the race in earnest, a note he struck in Iowa this week; and two, that Pawlenty is already drawing the “coordinated” fire of the Obama-DNC attack machine because they fear him.

So, it’s showtime for Pawlenty tonight. But it’s not exactly a defining moment for the Republican Party and its 2012 platform. Casual observers will be forgiven for not tuning in.