Nothing says "presidential primary" like a debate, which can be the first snapshots of the candidates voters see. But this year, the early debates aren't expected to give us the whole picture.
Unlike in years past, some of the more serious candidates are sitting out the early debates-leaving only a handful of contenders to take the stage and take each other on.
That's an entirely different story than in the 2008 campaign. Then, the debates started early, and the field was crowded. The first Republican debate in the '08 campaign was in May 2007, and 10 candidates competed--including big names like Sen. John McCain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Ron Paul and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The second debate took place less than two weeks later in South Carolina--and had the same 10 big-name participants.
This time it's a different photograph.
The first debate this year was scheduled for May, the same month as the first one four years ago. And like four years ago, it was to be hosted by MSNBC and Politico at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. But it didn't happen-and organizers eventually moved it to September.
"Although there will be a long and impressive list of Republican candidates who eventually take the field, too few have made the commitment thus far for a debate to be worthwhile in early May," said John Heubusch, executive director for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, in explaining the decision.
So what about the next scheduled debate? Same story. Just like four years ago, it's set to be hosted by Fox News in South Carolina and is scheduled for early May. Organizers say they're going forward.
But unlike in 2007, it doesn't look like all of the major contenders will even be there. And that raises the question of whether the debate will be the opening salvo in the primary contest or, as seems more likely, merely an event along the way.
There are a few reasons this debate roster isn't going to resemble later debate lineups. First, many prospective candidates can't--or don't--want to meet the criteria to attend.
According to the debate rules-which were in effect four years ago, incidentally--candidates have until the end of the day next Friday, April 29, to registere an exploratory committee or announced a "formal campaign" for the presidency. Otherwise, they can't participate in the debate. Oh, and they also must register at least 1 percent support in national polls.
And then there's the issue of the late start to the campaign--with an incumbent on the other side. That's also unlike four years ago-when the primaries on both sides were wide open.
So let's stop there. We know the Democratic nominee-but what about the potential Republican field for 2012?
The candidates/potential candidates with at least some national profile include Romney, Huckabee, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, former Sen. Rick Santorum, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Rep. Ron Paul, Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, political activist Fred Karger, Atlanta Businessman Herman Cain, and real estate mogul turned reality television star Donald Trump.
Of these, only Romney, Pawlenty, Karger and Roemer have filed declarations of their candidacy with the Federal Election Commission. (They've also filed paperwork forming exploratory committees, but that is not a legal requirement to run for office -- only the declaration of candidacy is.)
That means as of right now, only four Republicans meet that qualification for the debate, since only four have filed with the FEC. And only one of the major candidates who has qualified, Tim Pawlenty, has agreed to attend the debate. Though Romney has filed to run, he has not given any indication that he will attend.
There's a lot that can happen in the next two weeks, and it's worth keeping in mind that the election still 19 months away and the Iowa caucuses are still 10 months away. But the reality remains that the debate stage in South Carolina will probably reflect an incomplete portrait of the GOP field.
Among the other potential candidates:
Newt Gingrich: Rick Tyler, Press Secretary for Gingrich, tells CBS News that "We have been planning to participate in South Carolina and we plan to participate in South Carolina if we meet the qualifications for the deadline." Gingrich is currently in the official "testing the waters phase" of the campaign, and it remains unclear if he will meet the qualifications by filing a declaration of candidacy with the FEC next week.
Jon Huntsman: Ambassador Huntsman's tenure is not up until the April 30th, so he's unable to file for the debate -- though will he will be speaking in South Carolina a few days later.
Rick Santorum: The former Pennsylvania senator, who has made over 40 visits to the primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, has started a "testing the waters" committee. Santorum is expected to file with the FEC next week and meet the requirements to attend the debate.
Mitch Daniels: The governor is taking care of state business in Indiana, and is unlikely to make any announcement for a few weeks.
Herman Cain: He is also testing the waters and is unlikely to meet the debate polling requirement.
Fred Karger: He has filed with the FEC, but is unlikely to meet the polling requirement.
Buddy Roemer: Roemer has also filed with the FEC, but may not meet the polling requirement.
Ron Paul: A Paul advisor told CBS News the Texas congressman will meet the requirements to be at the South Carolina debate, so expect him to file the necessary paperwork this week.
Donald Trump: Trump can't file officially until after this season of his reality program, "The Celebrity Apprentice," which doesn't end until May 22.
Mike Huckabee: Though he won the Iowa caucus in 2008, Huckabee does not appear close to running again. Still, he's leading many polls and has the name recognition to enter the race late and a potentially make a splash.
Haley Barbour: Barbour appears likely to run, having made numerous trips to early primary states and having just won the South Carolina straw poll. He has also said that he would decide on a run before the end of April, giving him about a week to do so and qualify for the debate.
Michele Bachmann: The Tea Party-linked congresswoman has also spent time in those three big early states, but also doesn't appear to be on the verge of announcing a formal run.
The takeaway? Despite the fact that so many Republicans are chomping at the bit to remove Barack Obama from the White House, the 2012 Republican field has been slow to take shape.