GREENVILLE, SC -- On the record, the local Republican party is trying to make this matter. The governor is trying to make this matter. The media, with a collective shrug and a protest from the AP's photo pool, is arguing otherwise. Off the record, the local GOP sort of agrees.
"Of all the guys here Tim Pawlenty is the only one who speaks my language," one activist told me.
"What language is that?" I asked. "Being able to win?*"
"Yes," he said. "That."
The debate will feature five Republicans, whose faces are splayed across the cover of the local paper: Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, and Rick Santorum. The latter candidate spent the entire day here, impressing the people he met. Chris Panos, a biker's rights/anti-helmet law activist, told me Santorum found out that detail of his biography while they were at a breakfast spot, and the senator immediately expressed solidarity. He showed up at a National Day of Prayer event and made rounds.
When I asked State Treasurer Curtis Loftis what he was expecting, he predicted a break-out moment.
"Tonight I have a feeling that we're all walking into a room thinking one thing, and we're going to walk out, and it's going to be a different ballgame."
Nudged about who might break out, he didn't say... but he mentioned Herman Cain's name twice. Cain, the businessman and radio host who's generated huge buzz in primary states but been low-scoring in polls, is expected to shine in the soundbite Olympics and back-and-forth moments of the debate.
Having seen every one of these candidates on the stump, I'm tempted to think the candidates with the biggest breakout potential are Johnson and Cain; the candidate who has the most at risk (and it's not a big pool, really) is Pawlenty. As the only candidate the political press and donor class takes really seriously, Pawlenty can either make the big Republican news of the week -- the first of the 2012 debates! -- or he can be overshadowed by someone the press is ignoring. How might that work? Ask Ron Paul, who "lost" an exchange with Rudy Giuliani in this state four years ago, and proceeded to raise $35 million from a brand new national fanbase.
*This is not a real language.