By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In the latest evidence of the sputtering start to the 2012 White House race, Republicans will hold their first candidate debate on Thursday with a depleted line-up without the party's most high-profile contenders.
The nationally televised debate in South Carolina will feature only one top-tier candidate, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, and four lesser-known contenders for the right to challenge President Barack Obama next year.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who has formed a committee to raise money and explore a possible run, is skipping the event. Four other potential candidates who score well in early opinion polls -- Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich -- have made no move to run.
The debate's co-sponsors, Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party, decided to go forward despite the no-shows.
"Our job is not to marshal the field but to take stock of the field by asking the hard questions of those who decide to get in the race," said Michael Clemente, vice president of news at Fox.
Joining Pawlenty at the debate will be Representative Ron Paul, former Senator Rick Santorum, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and former Godfather's Pizza executive Herman Cain.
Debate participants were required to meet a set of criteria, including filing paperwork for at least a federal exploratory committee and garnering at least 1 percent in five national polls.
The weak turnout prolongs the slow and unsteady launch of the Republican presidential nomination fight. Candidates have delayed entering the race, saving their energy and money for later in the year, and some Republicans have begun to complain about the field.
But Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, another Republican who is considering a presidential run, said there was nothing wrong with getting a late start and called it "a blessing" for the public.
"It's a darn good thing that we'll have a nominating campaign measured in months and not years," he said after a speech on education policy in Washington.
The debate occurs days after the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a landmark success for Obama that is certain to color the proceedings. Obama's approval rating had sagged on worries about the economy and gas prices, but polls show he has received a boost in popularity since bin Laden's death.
The debate in Greenville, South Carolina, will be at 9 p.m. EDT on Thursday and will air on Fox News.
'GET OFF THE SIDELINE'
Without mentioning names, Pawlenty on Tuesday criticized potential Republican contenders who have delayed a decision on entering the race or are skipping the South Carolina debate.
"We've got to get off the sideline," Pawlenty said in an interview with Radio Iowa, acknowledging the debate would be "less big than it could be" because of the no-shows.
"We've got big challenges and it requires a big challenge and, you know, I think the time to engage President Obama is now," he said.
The debate opens a weekend of political activities in South Carolina, an early voting Southern state that has traditionally played a crucial role in Republican nominating fights.
The state Republican Party will hold a dinner in Columbia on Friday and those who participate in the debate have been invited to speak. There will be a convention and straw poll on Saturday.
"We give great credit to all of these candidates for being willing to stand before a national audience and lay out their plans and ideas for the future of this country," South Carolina Republican Party Chairwoman Karen Floyd said.
Former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who just left his post in Beijing to explore entering the Republican race, will visit the state to meet potential supporters. He makes his first U.S. public appearance since his return with a Saturday commencement address at the University of South Carolina.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)