Santorum commits to first presidential debate - even though he isn't a candidate

US President George W. Bush (R) stands with US Senator Rick Santorum (L), R-PA, at Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station in Pittsburgh, PA, 24 March 2006.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Then-Senator Rick Santorum with then-President George W. Bush in 2006.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Updated 3:49 p.m. Eastern Time

Former Sen. Rick Santorum announced this morning that he would participate in the first debate of the presidential primary season, a May 5 face-off in Greenville sponsored by the South Carolina Republican Party and Fox News Channel.

"I look forward to participating in the debate process that will allow me to share my views on the issues of the day as well as my vision for the future of our country," he said in a statement.

Yet Santorum is not actually a candidate for president - he hasn't even set up a presidential exploratory committee. While he is widely believed to be running (Fox News suspended him as a contributor in March for that very reason), he has officially said only that he is considering entering the race.

Fox News, meanwhile, has not announced what its guidelines will be for the debate - and whether an unannounced potential contender like Santorum will be allowed to participate. Contacted for comment earlier this week on its debate guidelines, the network would say only that it would make them known sometime in April; a representative did not respond to a question Friday about whether Santorum had been accepted.

Virginia Davis, a spokesperson for Santorum, said in response to similar questions that "informal discussions" with the South Carolina Republican Party had led to the announcement. Davis said that "they have been encouraging all potential presidential candidates to commit to attending."

The fact that candidates have been relatively slow to make their plans known in the 2012 cycle has already prompted what was to be the first GOP primary debate, which had been set for May 2, to be moved back to Sept. 14. With Tim Pawlenty the only major candidate to have even announced an exploratory committee, organizers decided that it was simply too early to hold the event.

The Republican National Committee has considered sanctioning the primary debates to bring some order to the process; as The Fix notes, there are now six on the calendar, from May through October, and more may be announced. More debates are better for long-shot candidates who might not otherwise get much exposure, but they also mean a spotlight on Republicans criticizing each other even as a likely-unopposed President Obama gears up for the general election.

Many likely GOP candidates, including the socially-conservative Santorum, are expected to announce exploratory committees this month, now that the April 1 filing deadline with the Federal Election Commission has passed. Candidates want to concentrate their fundraising in the three-month period beginning today so that quarterly FEC reports in the summer show they are raising a significant amount of money for their run; strong fundraising is a signal to the media (and donors) that a candidate has a serious shot at the nomination.

Among the candidates expected to enter the race are Louisiana Gov. Haley Barbour, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Update: Politico reports that Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer has also accepted the debate invitation.