South Carolina gears up for first Republican presidential debate tonight

Mitt Romney is not showing up. Nor is Sarah Palin, Jon Huntsman, Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachmann, or even Donald Trump. But tonight’s the first televised debate of the race for the Republican presidential nomination is taking place tonight regardless. The biggest name is former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who will have a chance to grab the national spotlight. No Republican has ever won the party’s presidential nomination without winning the primary in South Carolina. It’s an early primary state where and heavily-Republican one that serves as a litmus test of a candidate’s appeal to the party and to the American South.

“I will tell you, anyone who ignores the State of South Carolina is making a big mistake,” South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told reporters yesterday. Just ask Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor whose attempt to win the nomination without campaigning in South Carolina was a bust. Romney and Trump are scheduled to appear in the state later this month, and Bachmann has been through. Huntsman is scheduled to give a commencement speech in the state on Saturday.

David Wilkins, the former US ambassador to Canada and the former Speaker of the South Carolina legislature, said the issue for voters in the state’s Republican primary will be “the economy, jobs, deficits, out of control spending, and fiscal restraint.”

At a round table with reporters at his Greenville law office, Wilkins recalled his time as chairman of the late Strom Thurmond’s senate campaign in 1996: “All we talked about was ‘Strom Thurmond brings home the bacon. Strom Thurmond brings home the goods,” he recalled. “Now that’s not what people want to hear. Now it’s: ‘What are you going to do to curtail spending?’” Indeed, Tea Party activists were holding a rally blocks away from the debate to press their small-government cause.

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