By MICHAEL FALCONE and AMY WALTER
Five potential presidential candidates will appear on a debate stage in South Carolina tonight, hoping that during a week dominated by one story — and not the one they expected to be talking about — their messages to voters will be heard.
No one more so than former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the only major potential candidate who will be at the Greenville, S.C. event, sponsored by the South Carolina Republican Party and Fox News.
Pawlenty went so far as to lay out his case for appearing at the debate in an opinion piece in this morning’s Daily Caller.
“Some candidates are skipping tonight’s Republican 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,” Pawlenty wrote. “After two and a half years of Barack Obama’s presidency, nearly one in five American workers are consistently unable to find full employment, our national debt continues to skyrocket, and inflating energy and food prices are eating away at families’ budgets.” http://bit.ly/iH4wzw
He added, “We can do better. But first we need a new president — which is why tonight’s Republican debate is so important.”
Even as the headlines have been dominated by the killing of Osama bin Laden, a major victory for the Obama administration, Pawlenty, more than any other potential contender, has been sounding the alarm to fellow Republicans to “get off the sideline" and challenge the president.
Sharing the stage with Pawlenty tonight will be former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. As we noted earlier this week, the risk for Pawlenty is that his stature gets diminished by sharing a stage with lesser-known candidates eager to try and score points off an establishment figure, the reward may be that he gets a chance to catch the eye of Republican voters without having to share the spotlight with better-known potential rivals like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann.
The same goes for Santorum, who according to his spokeswoman Virginia Davis, wanted to participate tonight to show he’s “not afraid to take the tough questions.”
“Senator Santorum has a record and depth of knowledge and the debate will be an opportunity to demonstrate that,” Davis said. The debate will provide “an interesting window into these individuals.”
Cain, who has been busily preparing for the debate all week, plans to highlight “his real world experience and his ‘Common Sense Solutions’ that distinguish him from the other potential candidates in the field.”
“Mr. Cain's record is one of real job creation and real economic experience,” Ellen Carmichael, a spokeswoman for his presidential exploratory committee, told the Note. “I know Mr. Cain looks forward to discussing his positions on the issues.”
Jesse Benton, a spokesman for Paul, tells us: "Dr. Paul plans to talk about what he the same things he has been fighting for for 35 years — liberty, sound money, lower taxes and spending and a sensible, Pro American foreign policy."
BOTTOM LINE: You know this is a very different kind of year when a Republican candidate has to take to the Op-Ed pages of a conservative website to justify his participation in a debate hosted by Fox News in a key early state. That said, there is a risk for those who don't show up too. As Pawlenty noted in this piece, he's going to make “Obamacare” the centerpiece of his message tonight. Think he or anyone else will use this opportunity to link the Obama health care plan to, oh let’s say, “Romneycare”?
Remember, this isn't just about South Carolina. This debate in Greeneville is being broadcast nationally on the network that GOP primary voters watch more than any other.
TUNE IN: Tonight’s debate will be televised live on Fox News Channel beginning at 9:00 p.m. ET. We’re told that there will be no opening statements, the topics will be the news of the day, domestic and foreign policy issues. Candidates will get 60 seconds to answer questions and have 30 seconds for rebuttals. The debate will last 90 minutes with three breaks.
THE OTHER DEBATE: WHAT TO DO ABOUT PAKISTAN. “In the wake of the U.S.-led operation that killed Osama bin Laden, billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to Pakistan are in jeopardy as relations between the two countries turn sour,” ABC’s Huma Khan and Matthew Jaffe report. “Pakistan is coming under fire for not being able to spot bin Laden, who, instead of hiding in the remote caves of the northwest tribal areas as originally thought, was in fact living in an affluent neighborhood in Abbottabad, right near the Pakistani military academy. … Now, a growing chorus of lawmakers on Capitol Hill are calling for the administration to reassess the billions in aid it provides to Pakistan, given how unhelpful they say the Pakistani government was. … ‘From an intelligence point of view, we would want to know more about why this wasn't discovered by the Pakistani authorities,’ said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. One senator — New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg — went so far as to say that U.S. aid to Pakistan should be suspended until Congress receives answers about how bin Laden went undetected by authorities. But cutting off financial aid to Pakistan would not come without serious risks. Experts say it could have serious implications on U.S. security and the terror threat.” http://abcn.ws/ivM8XG
WHY WE WON’T SEE THE BIN LADEN PHOTOS. “We discussed this internally,” President Obama told CBS’ Steve Kroft in an interview for “60 Minutes” that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney read at yesterday’s press briefing. “Keep in mind that we are absolutely certain that this was him. We've done DNA sampling and testing, and so there is no doubt that we killed Osama bin Laden. It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool. That's not who we are. We don't trot out this stuff as trophies. The fact of the matter is, this was somebody who was deserving of the — of the justice that he received, and I think Americans and people around the world are glad that he is gone. But we don't need to spike the football. And I think that given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk. And I've discussed this with Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton and my intelligence teams, and they all agree.”
More from Jake Tapper’s “World News” report on the internal debate at the White House over the release of the photos: http://abcn.ws/jpxR7T
ON TODAY’S “TOP LINE.” ABC’s Amy Walter and Rick Klein speak with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark, a member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Government about the security situation in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death. Also on the program, Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, to talk about recent poll numbers for President Obama. Watch “Top Line” LIVE at 12:00 p.m. Eastern. http://bit.ly/ABCTopLine
WHITE HOUSE WATCH: OBAMA TO GROUND ZERO. President Obama will today lay a wreath at the “Survivor Tree,” a callery pear found in the wreckage of the World Trade Center plaza, nursed back to health, and planted at the 9/11 Memorial Plaza at ground zero in December, ABC’s Jake Tapper notes. The tree, originally planted at the WTC complex more than 30 years ago, has tremendous symbolic value for many New Yorkers. Taken to the Parks Department’s Arthur Ross Nursery in Van Cortlandt Park, the tree was barely alive in 2001. Parks Department workers nursed it back to health; it now stands more than 35 feet. http://abcn.ws/k0iaIE Here’s the tree: http://twitpic.com/4to5mb
ON THE HILL: DEMS, GOP SPAR OVER ENERGY PROPOSAL. “Democrats and Republicans will offer dueling energy measures on the House floor Thursday intended to address gas prices that have risen to near record levels nationally,” The Washington Examiner’s Susan Ferrichio reports. “Republicans, who hold a 24-seat majority in the House, are expected to easily pass one or two measures aimed at increasing domestic oil production, which they say would eventually make gas cheaper. But they will first be forced by Democrats into a politically awkward vote on whether to slash $4 billion in tax subsidies for Big Oil. … It's not likely the Democratic provision will pass, but the vote could expose a divide in the GOP on the issue. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is among a minority of Republicans who say they favor ending the subsidies. Senate Democrats are expected to announce their own measure to end tax breaks for Big Oil. A vote on that measure is possible soon. But a similar measure last year failed to garner the 60 votes needed for passage as all Republicans and 21 Democrats voted against it, expressing concern that ending the subsidies will lead to even higher prices at the pump.” http://bit.ly/iK3v5u
2012 WATCH: THE VIEW FROM NEW HAMPSHIRE. “A new poll shows that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the top choice among New Hampshire Republicans in the presidential primary,” WMUR reports. “The WMUR Granite State Poll shows that 36 percent of likely Republican voters would pick him over the other possible presidential candidates. Businessman Donald Trump rose to second, with 11 percent support. The poll of 416 likely Republican voters was conducted by the University of New Hampshire from April 15 through May 2 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.8 percentage points. Romney's support is larger than the next four potential candidates combined. Pollster Andy Smith said this early in the process, star power and name recognition counts for a lot. … Two candidates who have spent a lot of time in New Hampshire over the past year — Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum — did not fare well in the poll. Pawlenty had only 2 percent support, and Santorum had less than 1 percent.” http://bit.ly/iVQMMl
MITCH DANIELS: IT’S NOT ‘TOO LATE.’ Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said on Wednesday that it is not too late for him to jump into the Republican presidential nominating contest, and even called the late start to the campaign “a blessing.” “People far more sage than I about our political process and presidential process are very surprised that on May the fourth it’s not already far too late,” Daniels said at a speech in Washington DC. “But for whatever reason, it’s not.” Daniels, who was answering a question from a reporter after a speech on education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that from the “standpoint of the public” the plodding pace of the campaign for the GOP nomination is “a blessing.” When pressed by reporters to elaborate on his timeline for making an announcement — one way or the other — on a presidential bid, Daniels said, “We won’t take long.” He noted that “family considerations are always the most important” factor in that process. http://abcn.ws/jrDNRq
FOX NEWS SPEEDING UP HUCKABEE'S PRESIDENTIAL TIMELINE? “For months, the political class has believed that [former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee would not run in the 2012 election cycle because he wasn't taking any organizational steps,” RealClearPolitics’ Erin McPike notes. “According to a confidant of [Ed] Rollins who has been slated for a high-level position in the potential campaign, ‘Ed has had long and serious discussions with Mike as recently as this past weekend.’ Rollins would manage the first phase of the Huckabee campaign this time. ‘He's looking at the polls and seeing what everyone else is,’ the Rollins confidant said, noting that after several months of jockeying, Huckabee is still at or near the top of the national polls when it comes to the Republican field, and polling just about even in matchups with President Obama. … For a while, Huckabee has indicated he would make a decision about whether to run sometime this summer, but Rollins has been applying pressure, and the timeline is accelerating. Now, he may have to offer his decision by the end of the month. Republican operatives familiar with the deliberations at Fox News say that the network has told Huckabee he has until the end of the month to make up his mind about the race or he'll be cut off, just as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were when the then-contributors were still in the consideration phase. On a national level, Rollins has gotten verbal agreements from experienced Republican operatives who would join the team. A political director, fundraising team, media team, communications director, press staff, policy shop and opposition research outfit are locked and loaded. Serious discussions with a respected national pollster are ongoing, and several national Republican operatives have told RealClearPolitics that they've gotten calls with the message: ‘This thing is happening. Do you want to be a part of it?’” http://bit.ly/l6we07
The Note Futures Calendar: http://abcn.ws/ZI9gV
* Get The Note delivered to your inbox every day.