Tim Pawlenty will be the only leading contender at tonight’s 2012 GOP debate

Holly Bailey

With a little over seven months to go before next year's GOP primaries, Republican presidential hopefuls will meet on the debate stage for the first time tonight.

But with several 2012 contenders set to be no-shows, including frontrunners Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, it's a gathering that's likely to be remembered less as a defining moment of the campaign and more as the slow kick-off of the GOP primary.

Just five GOP presidential hopefuls are set to appear at tonight's debate sponsored by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party--a group that could easily be defined as a who's who of the party's backbench. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is considered the only leading candidate who will appear at the event, but even he is not well-known among GOP voters.

Indeed, the five candidates—Pawlenty, Rep. Ron Paul, former Sen. Rick Santorum, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain--collectively poll at roughly 10 percent among GOP voters, according to a Quinnipiac Poll released Wednesday.  By comparison, Romney alone leads the field with 18 percent support among Republican voters.

But even if most of these candidates have little chance of claiming the GOP nomination, it's forums like these that tend to allow little-known candidates the chance to expand their national reach--that is, if voters tune in. Most of the candidates tonight, including Pawlenty and Santorum, already appear regularly on Fox News. The big unknown is whether viewers will even bother to watch an event that seems to lack the so-called A-list of potential GOP contenders.

While Huckabee and another 2012 hopeful, Sarah Palin, made clear long ago they wouldn't be at the forum, Romney chose not to attend the debate, saying through a spokesman that it's still "early" and the field remains too "unsettled."

In an op-ed published on The Daily Caller, Pawlenty responded to Romney, without naming him, calling out his GOP rivals for being no-shows and urging them to get off the sidelines.

"Some candidates are skipping tonight's Republican debate in South Carolina because they believe it's 'too soon' to begin the presidential campaign against Barack Obama. I only hope that it's not too late," he wrote. "We can do better. But first we need a new president--which is why tonight's Republican debate is so important."

The test for Pawlenty going into tonight's debate isn't whether he can distinguish himself against a roster of little-known candidates--he likely will. The real challenge is whether Pawlenty can translate his appearance into any genuine momentum that might propel him into the upper tier of 2012 hopefuls.

(Photo of Pawlenty: Charlie Neibergall /AP)