Tim Pawlenty Takes a Seat at the Loser Table

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Photo: David Greedy/Getty Images

In every high school cafeteria in America, there is a loser table. We're not saying these kids — probably intelligent, kind people, but eccentric or socially awkward — deserve the label, but that's how it is. To everybody else, they're the losers. Eating together only amplifies that perception.

Tomorrow night in South Carolina, the stage at the first Republican debate of the primary season will be, for all intents and purposes, the loser table. Some of the big-name candidates and potential candidates (like Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, and Mike Huckabee) have yet to form exploratory committees or declare their candidacies outright, a prerequisite for participation in the debate, as determined by its co-sponsors, Fox News and the South Carolina GOP. Others, like Mitt Romney, were invited to participate but simply chose not to ("It's still early, the field is too unsettled, and he's not yet an announced candidate," a spokesman explained on Monday). Consequently, the debate will feature a lineup of Congressman Ron Paul, former senator Rick Santorum, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.

Which is great news for Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and Gary Johnson — generally smart guys, but a little too eccentric and socially awkward. Guys who poll, at best, in the high single digits, and at worst, somewhere between zero and one percent. (Another of the debate's eligibility requirements was receiving an average of one percent in the last five national polls. According to Michael Clemente, vice-president of news for Fox News, Johnson just made the cutoff with an average of one percent, while Cain averaged 2.6 percent but has only been included at all in three polls. "It’s not Cain’s fault that more pollsters haven’t mentioned his name," Clemente says.)

Why Fox is going ahead with this debate despite the less-than-dazzling turnout is unclear. A Politico/NBC News debate originally scheduled for this week was postponed after facing similar circumstances. But Paul, Santorum, Cain, and Johnson certainly don't mind. These guys aren't going to win the nomination, and they know it. They're running to get attention for themselves and their messages, and at least in this first, sparsely populated debate, they'll have a rapt audience.

Then there's Tim Pawlenty. He polls in the single digits, too, but it's also widely believed he possesses the qualities to become a force in the race (if only by the process of elimination) once voters actually know who he is. He's running to win, and a lot of smart people think he can do it. Pawlenty says "he's looking forward to the South Carolina debate as a way to boost his name recognition and appeal."

A boost to his name recognition? Sure. But what kind of impression will his appearance leave? Tomorrow night, when many voters are introduced to him for the first time, Pawlenty will be sharing a stage with a bunch of, let's face it, unviable also-rans. They'll watch a debate consisting of Ron Paul and a number of people they've never heard of before in their lives and assume that, Oh, this is the debate for the long shots and the cranks. When do the real candidates start debating?

Back to the loser table for a minute. Imagine yourself a student who aspires to become one of the "popular kids." You'd rather forgo lunch altogether than sit at the loser table, lest onlookers get the idea that you, too, are a loser. Yet Pawlenty has surveyed the cafeteria, spotted an open seat at the loser table, and plopped himself down. He deserves credit for taking the plunge — "We need to get off the sideline and begin to make the specific case why the country should replace President Obama," he said yesterday — but what he might get instead is an unflattering reputation.