Five reasons why tonight's GOP debate matters

Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Gary Johnson and Rick Santorum
From left: Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Gary Johnson and Rick Santorum

GREENVILLE, S.C.-- Outside this pivotal presidential primary state, there's been one reaction to tonight's presidential debate.


It was supposed to be the first major debate, the first time the top Republican contenders would square off on stage and on television before a national audience.

But as it turns out, there's not a whole lot that's major about it -- at least if you're looking at the contenders who are participating. Where are the big names, or at least the names you've heard of? Mitt Romney? Newt Gingrich? Michele Bachmann? Mike Huckabee? Sarah Palin?

For different reasons, they're all staying away -- leaving the stage to one top tier-candidate and four other names you still probably won't be talking about a year from now.

Here in Greenville, where those five will take the stage tonight, it feels a little like high school, when the cool kids have decided they aren't going to the party and so everyone starts trying to figure out what they're doing instead.

Why, for example, was former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee meeting with fundraisers and operatives in Washington yesterday? Why did his former campaign manager give a power-point presentation to about 100 people -- including some big-time conservative names -- at one of those meetings last night? Is that all a sign Huckabee's actually going to shake up the race and run?

And what's that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels up to? According to CBS's Don Lee, he said in a speech yesterday in Washington that it's not too late to decide to run. So when is he going to decide?

Even former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- the one potential top-tier candidate who will be at tonight's debate -- is sounding a little miffed. In an opinion piece in today's Daily Caller, he called out the no-shows (listen up, Mitt Romney).

"Some candidates are skipping tonight's 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.

In addition to Pawlenty, tonight's debate will include former Godfather's Pizza Chief Executive Herman Cain, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Not the big names, to be sure. But as Pawlenty goes on to suggest - -and as insiders here know -- the debate still matters, not just in South Carolina, but for the whole 2012 presidential campaign, as well.

Here are five reasons why.

1. Tim Pawlenty. As the one possible top-tier candidate who's here, the pressure is on Pawlenty. "He's got the most to gain and the most to lose," said strategist Warren Tompkins. If he performs well, he can shore up his credentials and increase his name recognition. But there are huge risks. If he gets sidetracked or derailed by issues other candidates want to talk about, he could get hurt. One big misstatement or stumble could be the headline that dogs him through the campaign.

2. South Carolina is a big deal for Republican presidential politics. It's the first southern primary, and its voters are a bellwether for the rest of the nation's Republicans. Voters here take presidential politics seriously. Since 1980, the candidate who won the Republican primary here went on to win the GOP nomination. "South Carolina has a really good record of being an index of who the nominee will ultimately be," said strategist Richard Quinn.

3. South Carolina is a big deal for the newcomers. For some of these candidates, tonight's debate will be their first real meeting with voters, and people here are less concerned about the no-shows like Romney, Huckabee, Palin and Gingrich. They've seen them before. As former Attorney General Henry McMaster told me, "Most of the people in that room have probably had supper with those that aren't here."

4. The pressure may be on the debaters tonight, but now it's on the no-shows, too. With so much at stake in South Carolina, a serious candidate who's not at the debate and wants to do well in this state better get here soon. (Like former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is doing, meeting with key political leaders and delivering a commencement speech on Saturday in Columbia).

5. The cool kids will be watching. Even if they're staying away, they still want to know what's going on at the party. How do the others do in addressing the top issues voters are concerned about? In South Carolina, as House Speaker Bobby Harrell said, "the top three issues are the economy." The questions in tonight's debate will shape questions in the campaign and subsequent debates, and help set the tone for what's to come.

Jan Crawford discusses the debate more in the video below:

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    Jan Crawford is CBS News Chief Political and Legal Correspondent. She is from "Crossroads," Alabama.