Buddy Roemer, the one-term Louisiana governor from long ago (whose reelection campaign ended in defeat at the hands of a Klansman), was none too happy when Fox News announced Wednesday that it was barring him from participating in the first Republican presidential debate, to be held in South Carolina Thursday night.
But he may actually be catching a break.
Tonight’s event could well be the first time in history that a nationally televised presidential debate lowers the stature of every participant.
A total of five candidates are set to take the stage at 9 p.m., when Fox News — which customarily attracts several million viewers in that time slot — goes live. Only one of them, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, has a realistic chance of winning the GOP nomination — or even coming close. The other four are strident ideologues with niche appeal, nonexistent victory prospects — and absolutely nothing to lose. Let’s meet them:
* Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. […] To the extent Cain has distinguished himself on the ’12 trail, it’s probably through his pledge to engage in hiring discrimination by barring Muslims from working in his administration.
* Rick Santorum: Santorum was drummed out of the Senate by Pennsylvania voters in 2006, losing his bid for a third term by 17 points to Democrat Bob Casey. […H]e is passionately opposed to abortion, gay rights and President Obama — and he’ll have plenty of time to prove it tonight.
* Gary Johnson: The former New Mexico governor is probably, as Salon noted last year, the most interesting Republican you’ve never heard of — an authentic libertarian who wants to dismantle government but who also supports legal abortion and pot. Obviously, he’ll barely make a dent once the primaries roll around (especially with Ron Paul in the race), but he’ll get an unusual amount of airtime tonight for his unorthodox platform — which will presumably prompt Cain and Santorum to use him as a foil to assert their conservative bona fides, potentially forcing Pawlenty to weigh in on subjects he’d rather sidestep.
* Ron Paul: His presence figures to foster this same dynamic, just as it did in 2007 and 2008 — when no GOP debate was complete without one candidate using Paul as a punching bag in order to look courageous and principled in the eyes of the party base.
And that’s it. No other candidates (or potential candidates) will participate. Mitt Romney is wisely staying away, as is Mike Huckabee. Even Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann are keeping their distance. No-shows were not supposed to be an issue when Fox and the South Carolina GOP originally scheduled the debate a few months ago. Back then, it was assumed — based on recent history — that the GOP field would be fully formed and the campaign in full swing. But that hasn’t happened.
It’s hard to see how Fox or the GOP will win by going forward with the debate. But for casual viewers who don’t have a rooting interest, it promises to be one of the more entertaining hours in presidential debate history.