Fox News presidential debate still on, but candidates could be hard to come by

Washington Bureau

It’s slated to be the kickoff event of the 2012 Republican primary season. But as a scheduled May 5 debate hosted by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party rapidly nears, it’s unclear whether any major presidential candidates will actually be there.

That’s because few of the likely contenders qualify to participate under the strict criteria laid out by the cable news network. Fox News acknowledged as much, last week quietly moving the deadline for candidates to qualify from April 29 to May 3.

“Because the field is forming so late this cycle, there are not as many polls as there were at this stage in previous cycles,” Michael Clemente, senior vice president of news for the network, said through a spokeswoman Monday. “In the interest of being as inclusive as possible, Fox wanted to make the deadline as close to the debate as possible in case there are late polls that may help candidates qualify for the debate.”


But even with the deadline pushed back, it appears doubtful there will be full roster of White House contenders on stage at the Peace Center in Greenville, S.C., next Thursday.

According to the rules Fox News listed earlier this month, the debate participants have to:

  • register a presidential exploratory committee or have announced a formal campaign for president
  • file all necessary paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission
  • file all necessary paperwork with the South Carolina Republican Party
  • pay all federal and South Carolina filing fees
  • meet all U.S. constitutional requirements
  • have garnered at least an average of 1% in five national polls based on most recent polling.

Of the likely GOP candidates that the state party recently announced were expected to participate in the debate—former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania -- only Pawlenty and Roemer have filed paperwork with the FEC. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has also filed papers legally establishing his candidacy, has not said whether he will participate.
As of last Thursday, no candidate had yet paid South Carolina’s filing fee, according to the Spartanburg Herald Journal.

When asked what the network would do if only a few candidates qualified in time for the debate, Clemente declined to answer directly, saying only: “We’re confident that we’ll have enough candidates in South Carolina to have a vigorous and worthwhile debate.”

Joel Sawyer, a spokesman for the South Carolina Republican Party, also declined to answer whether he had any doubts about whether the event would occur. “We anticipated from the very beginning that most candidates would meet the criteria very close to the May 3 deadline,” he said in a statement. “We plan to have a great debate on the 5th.”

It’s unclear how much Fox News has invested in the forum, which has been widely anticipated in political circles as the event that will kick-start what has been a slow-building primary race. It is set to coincide with the state’s Republican Party convention. Clemente said the network does not discuss production costs and would not say whether the network had signed contracts to produce to event on May 5.

If the debate is postponed, it wouldn’t be the first such delay this season. A first-in-the-country debate scheduled to be hosted May 2 by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation with NBC News and Politico was pushed back to September because of the slow-forming GOP field.