Thursday, May 5, 2011

First Primary Debate to Be Held Today

A debate sponsored by the South Carolina GOP and Fox News will be held this evening at 9:00pm ET. This marks the first primary debate of the season; previously scheduled debates were postponed due to lack of candidates willing to participate.

Some might say this first debate does not really "count" because many of the Republican candidates will not be participating. That's no surprise. After all, as the Campaign Status page shows, no one has officially declared a presidential run yet. Candidates who have merely formed exploratory committees are permitted to participate.

There are other requirements for inclusion in this debate. In a previous post, we took a look at how it's determined who gets included in the debates. Here, one of the requirements is polling an average of at least 1% in five national primary polls. Virtually any serious candidate ought to meet the requirement.

However, being invited does not meet a candidate must attend. Several of those leading the polls have already decided not to participate. Some, like Huckabee, cannot appear for contractual reasons; he would need to terminate his lucrative Fox News contract first. Others, like Romney and Gingrich, could appear but will not.

Refusing to participate is a means of depriving the debate of its legitimacy. This is normally done when a marginal group tries to host a debate but does not have the resources to televise it. Here, Romney and others realize there is little to gain. If Romney's chief rival will be Huckabee, for instance, there is no point in appearing in a forum where he cannot attack Huckabee and others can attack Romney.

Here, some candidates may be concerned that the debate isn't exclusive enough. For example, Herman Cain will be able to participate, but might be excluded from future debates by more stringent poll requirements. If Romney and other leading contenders appeared at this debate, it would draw a larger audience, thereby giving a bigger platform to Cain.

Cain's strategy requires him to participate in the major debates. Because so few of the leading candidates will be attending, this debate cannot be considered one of the "major" ones. Nevertheless, Elephant Watcher will monitor the debate to see what develops.