South Carolina pre-debate buzz: Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty, and the guy who isn't here 

Greenville, S.C.

Here in South Carolina, Republican pols are trying to make the best of the fact that tonight's debate -- the first of the presidential primary season -- is going forward without some of the best-known Republican candidates and possible candidates.

"It would be nice if they were all here," says Curtis Loftis, the popular Republican state treasurer.  "But I am hopeful tonight -- because it is a smaller field, and it's a hungrier field, a field that needs to prove itself -- that things will happen tonight."

Many observers point to two candidates to watch. "It's Pawlenty," says one experienced state GOP pol, referring to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.  "He's got a chance to move up into the first tier or stay in the second tier."  With Mitt Romney's decision to skip the debate, many observers see Pawlenty as the only potentially major candidate in the field, which also includes Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, and Gary Johnson.

The other name being tossed around is Cain. "A guy like Herman Cain, who is not so well known but is very capable -- a couple of good policy statements, he proves himself that way, and then a one-liner or two, and all of a sudden he's out in front of this crowd," Loftis says.

The final name being heard around Greenville is the guy who isn't here: Mitt Romney.  South Carolina political insiders do not express anger at Romney's decision to skip the debate.  Instead, they shake their heads and say he's making a mistake by shortchanging South Carolina.  Maybe he's got some grand plan for winning the nomination without paying sufficient attention to South Carolina, they say, but they don't know what it is.

The Romney camp is trying to keep him in the conversation in South Carolina without the candidate actually being here.  Curtis Loftis says he received a call from top Romney aide Matt Rhoades this morning to say that Romney will be visiting South Carolina later this month.  Governor Nikki Haley also mentioned Romney's upcoming visit today.  Still, the debate is now, and Romney is not here.

Most of the candidates decided not to stop by the Greenville Tea Party rally, which went on much of debate day at the Hyatt hotel a few blocks from where the debate will be held.  Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson was the only debate participant to address the group, although Ron Paul is scheduled to speak after the debate.  Pawlenty had been scheduled to appear but later cancelled.  Former Alabama chief justice Roy Moore did speak, but he hasn't won enough support to be included in the debate.

Johnson did not wow the Tea Party with his proposal that making Social Security more viable should involve either raising the eligibility age, means testing benefits, or changing the way benefits are calculated.  Reforming Social Security is a notoriously unpopular topic with Tea Partiers, and that part of Johnson's speech was met with complete silence.  Still, Johnson had no regrets. "You've got to take it on, and you have to take it on truthfully," he told me afterward, "and in this case Social Security is a system that needs to take in more money than it pays out."

He'll probably say something like that tonight.  But many of the Republicans here will be paying far more attention to Pawlenty, to Cain, and to the candidate who isn't here.


About The Author

Byron York


Byron York is the Examiner’s chief political correspondent. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He blogs throughout the week at Beltway Confidential.

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