S.C. debate could be a turning point for Pawlenty

Tim Pawlenty
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks to local residents during a breakfast meeting at a Pizza Ranch restaurant, May 3, in Ames, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The first Republican debate of the 2012 campaign is hardly the talk of the town along North Main street in downtown Greenville, S.C. Around lunchtime, plenty of people had no idea that some of the GOP presidential contenders were on the way into town.

Even self-described died-in-the-wool Republican Charles Childress.

"I hadn't heard a word. That's pretty cool."

Some, but not all, of the contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination will debate Thursday in Greenville, S.C.

Several of the big-name likely contenders -- including Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann -- will not be at the debate.

But former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty will be there. And some political analysts are saying the forum could be a good opportunity for him to boost his national profile and his standing in the South.

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Childress had heard of Pawlenty but didn't know that he served two terms as governor of Minnesota.

Mary Shand
Mary Shand
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Fellow Republican Mary Shand also had heard about Pawlenty. She knew all about the debate and said she was both excited and disappointed.

"I like Tim, but I wish some of the top three had come," she said.

Shand said showing up for the debate in Greenville shows respect and should help Pawlenty boost his standing in South Carolina.

The state is important not only because of its early primary but also because, for more than 30 years, no GOP presidential hopeful has won the nomination without winning South Carolina.

The debate features what could be called the second tier of GOP candidates. On the stage with Pawlenty will be Texas Congressman Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and businessman Herman Cain.

The debate will air live on Fox News. Danielle Vinson, chair of the Furman University Political Science Department, said Pawlenty is the best known candidate of those who are showing up, and that he has an chance to make an impact on a national audience.

Danielle Vinson
Furman University Political Science Department Chair Danielle Vinson
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"For Pawlenty, this has the potential to be very important because he is going to sort of be the focal point, I think, for the a lot of media," Vinson said. "Because he is the name that people are most familiar with out of the group that's going to be here, and he's seen as a serious candidate."

This first debate will be a lot different from the first GOP debate four years ago. Back then, 10 Republican candidates met at the Reagan Presidential Library in California, and all of the big name contenders were there.

The first debate of this cycle was supposed to have taken place earlier this week at the Reagan Library, but citing the unusually late start to the campaign, organizers postponed the forum until September.

Pawlenty is expected to use the South Carolina debate to criticize President Obama on job creation and government spending. But foreign policy and national security will likely play a larger role than they otherwise would have now that the United States has killed Osama bin Laden.

The field four years ago
Republican presidential hopefuls, from left, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, Jim Gilmore, former governor of Virginia, Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., Tommy Thompson, former secretary of Health and Human Services, Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. line up on stage before the first Republican presidential primary debate of the 2008 election at the Ronald Reagan Library, Thursday, May 3, 2007, in Simi Valley, Calif.

California Lutheran University Professor Herb Gooch was in the audience at the first debate four years ago. He said Pawlenty would be well served to sell himself as a budget balancer and highlight his knowledge of foreign policy. Gooch said, as Pawlenty struggles to become better known nationally, he needs to be aggressive at the debates while appearing presidential as the same time.

"It might be wise for Tim Pawlenty to make clear his opposition but not try to, how would I put it -- out-Tea Party the Tea Partiers. He's got to appear to be somehow a man of substance that isn't only appealing to the Obama haters or the birthers and all that sort of stuff. I think it's wise to stay away from that."

Polls show likely South Carolina Republican primary voters favor former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee over other possible GOP candidates. But it's anyone's guess now who will actually run. Many believe if Huckabee chooses not to get into the race, the South and the nomination will be wide open. Republican consultant and Clemson University Professor David Woodward said he thinks a candidate like Pawlenty could prove attractive to South Carolina voters.

"He could probably have good upside here if he can do well in this debate. I think he could gain some serious ground. I think the opposite is also true. If he fouls up, he'll look worse."

Earlier this week in Iowa, Pawlenty offered some back-handed criticism of the candidates who won't be at the debate. He said it's time for opponents of President Obama to get off the sidelines.