On Thursday night, Fox News and the South Carolina GOP will host the first debate among 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls. But tempering any sense of excitement, most of the high-profile Republicans contenders are skipping the debate, or are ineligible because they haven't filed the proper campaign paperwork yet. So, will a debate between former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and "niche candidates" like Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and Gary Johnson tell us anything about the 2012 election?

No, the debate will be irrelevant: This is more like a meeting of "the Feeble Five than the cream of the GOP's crop," says Scott Conroy at RealClearPolitics. Pawlenty is the only remotely top-tier candidate in the bunch, and it's not clear that "being grouped with the smaller fish" will help him. Between the "lack of marquee candidates" and President Obama's big win in the killing of Osama bin Laden, who's going to tune in to a B-list GOP debate?
"Short on big names, GOP debaters will vie to stand out in S.C."

The no-shows are taking a big risk: South Carolina Republicans will be paying attention, says Carl Cameron at Fox News. And they're "warning several hopefuls who have chosen to skip the event that it will hurt them." Retail politics is hugely important to Palmetto State primary voters, and they will see sitting out the debate as a snub. As state party officials never tire of pointing out, you don't win the GOP nomination without winning the critical South Carolina primary.
"The flag goes up on 2012"

At least the B-listers get a chance to prove themselves: The bright side of the sparse attendance is that each of the five participating Republicans will get a chance to shine, says David Weigel at Slate. Pawlenty gets to play the role of the only plausible nominee, Johnson and Paul have a platform to tout their pet issues, and "Santorum and Cain get to vie for the trophy of Most Likely to Make a One-Liner That Dominates Second-Day Coverage."
"The line-up for the first Republican presidential primary debate..."