Top Contenders Skipping First GOP Debate

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Republican presidential hopefuls are launching the campaign season with the first GOP debate on Thursday. But the South Carolina Republican Party had trouble convincing some politicians that the debate is a necessary step to the Oval Office. Many of the most recognizable potentials are opting out. Host Michel Martin speaks with NPR's Ken Rudin about what this debate means for the 2012 presidential race.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, what does the fact that Osama bin Laden was found and killed right near a military academy and just about an hour's drive away from Pakistan's capital city, Islamabad, tell us about relations between Washington and Islamabad now and going forward. We'll speak with a person with deep knowledge of Pakistan's military and political leadership in just a few minutes about this question.

But, first, the battle to lead this country. It might seem early, but it's already started. Republican presidential hopefuls are scheduled to hold their first debate tomorrow. But it seems as though party officials have had some trouble convincing contenders this was a necessary stop on their way to the White House. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty appeared on "Fox and Friends" with this call to his fellow Republican contenders.

TIM PAWLENTY: I hope all of the serious or even potential candidates are going to get in the debate because, look, this is a president who has got his challenges, but he's going to raise a billion dollars. He's a very gifted campaigner and we've got to start taking the case to the American people why he should be fired.

MARTIN: But as of last night, only five candidates are signed up. Joining us to tell us who's making the trek to the Palmetto State and who is not is NPR's political editor Ken Rudin. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Hi, Ken. Thanks for joining us.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So, who's going? Who are the five?

RUDIN: Well, the five are Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota; Ron Paul, the conservative-slash-libertarian congressman from Texas who's run twice before, once as a Libertarian, once as a Republican; Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, very strong pro-life; Herman Cain, businessman pizza magnate; and former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson. Not a bunch of household names here.

MARTIN: No Sarah Palin.

RUDIN: No Sarah Palin. No Mitt Romney, the ostensible frontrunner. No Mike Huckabee, who's run before. No Newt Gingrich. It's a very slowly developing Republican field.

MARTIN: Any idea why? Is it the location? Is it the venue? Is it the timing?

RUDIN: Well, you'd say, if you look in the past, the timing would be perfectly normal. Four years ago this time in, let's see, 2007, there were, like, 20 candidates already declared. But of course then it was an open presidency. President Bush wasn't running and, you know, it was a wide open field. Given what happened in 2010, the fact that the Republicans did so well, given the fact that the economy is not doing well, unemployment is still at unacceptable levels, you'd think the Republicans would really want to go after President Obama.

But as we just heard with Tim Pawlenty, the president is going to likely have a one-billion-dollar campaign. He's still a very good campaigner. There's still some questions about how good the Republicans are and of course what happened with the capture of Osama bin Laden, that could change the conversation as well.

MARTIN: Why wouldn't somebody like Sarah Palin jump into the fray? I mean, it's not as though she's, you know, fully employed elsewhere. It's not like she has a political - it's very difficult for people who are sitting in a political office to then take time off to run because sometimes people don't like that. They say, you know, why aren't you dealing with the challenges for which we elected you? But somebody like that, you know, why wouldn't she, for example, and Mitt Romney just go?

RUDIN: Well, Mitt Romney, by all accounts, is going to run and he may not announce - you know, right away. Of course he does have some problems and questions too, having pushed through Romney care. The Republicans are so busy attacking Obama care, regarding the health care bill, what about Romney care that he put through in Massachusetts? So that's a drawback. Sarah Palin's a different kind of character altogether. She's very, you know, she's making a ton of money on speeches. She's a reliable and a common fixture on Fox News. She may just want to be a voice in this thing and she may not want to run altogether.

MARTIN: Well, what was the criteria for being invited? Do you have to have formed an exploratory committee?

RUDIN: That's part of it too and you also have to have at least one percent in the polls and that's one of the reasons why former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, who does have an exploratory committee, was not invited because he doesn't have one percent in the polls.

Look, it's still very, very early. I don't think it really matters. You know, you go back to 1991 when Democrats weren't announcing until October of the year. Bill Clinton, I don't think, announced until October 1991 and of course he wound up winning the election.

MARTIN: What about Donald Trump?

RUDIN: Well, you know, it's funny. A week ago, this is what we were talking about. We were talking about birther nonsense and how Donald Trump was doing all this - these great numbers in the polls and in the last couple of days somehow a serious side of politics has taken hold. We're no longer talking about birthers. We're talking about who can make the tough decisions and the gutsy decisions to affect world politics as we saw late Sunday night, you know, in Pakistan. So the momentum has changed, the conversation has changed.

Whether this is a long-lasting thing for President Obama, who knows? Remember when George H.W. Bush, you know, had the Kuwaiti war in 1991, he had 90 percent in the polls and of course he was beaten a year later. So this could be very short-lived.

MARTIN: But why wouldn't Donald Trump participate? Is it because he hasn't yet filed the appropriate papers? He doesn't want to disclose his finances? Why wouldn't he go just to show people what he can do?

RUDIN: Well, I think the fact is he was humiliated at the White House Correspondents' Dinner last weekend and basically all of the chest pounding that Donald Trump had been doing last week that - I'm glad I brought up the birther thing and I'm responsible for this - he really was taken down a notch. But, also, the Fox News criteria was that he had to have established an exploratory committee. Donald Trump has not done that yet.

MARTIN: And, finally, are South Carolina Republican officials disappointed that more contenders aren't showing up?

RUDIN: Probably. But, again, we're going to see - come Labor Day, you're going to see a lot of debates in South Carolina because that's an early state and you'll see a big Republican field.

MARTIN: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor, our political junkie. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Ken, thanks so much for joining us.

RUDIN: Thank you, Michel.

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