In Thursday night’s Fox GOP presidential debate, a snapshot of a struggling party

Republicans won an historic number of Congressional seats in the midterm election just six months ago. Thursday night Fox News hosted the first 2012 GOP presidential primary election debate and it featured something like the weakest early lineup of candidates in modern memory. Serious Republican strategists watched either in denial or in panic through fingers stretched across their eyes.

Not coming. No way.

Donald Trump won’t be there. His proto-candidacy is likely finished in the wake of the unveiling of the “long form” birth certificate last week and the humiliation of the White House correspondents dinner, where his reality TV accomplishments were effectively set against the Obama-led mission-in-the-works that killed Osama bin Laden. (“Well played, sir. Well played.”)

Mitt Romney, the apparent frontrunner in the GOP presidential field and a man who has been campaigning for months already, is having nothing to do with the debate.

Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann have yet to pull the trigger on their candidacies. All of them so far seem to appeal to a fairly narrow set of voters.

Indeed, the Koch brothers and other major GOP financial backers aren’t committed to any of these people, including Mitt Romney, who has been reportedly wooing donors by telling them he had secured David Koch’s support.

Steve Kornacki at Salon describes what Fox has in store for us tonight. Besides former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, he says, the candidates are “strident ideologues with niche appeal, nonexistent victory prospects — and absolutely nothing to lose.”

* Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. Cain has run for office before, finishing a distant second (with 27 percent of the vote) to Johnny Isakson in Georgia’s 2004 U.S. Senate primary… To the extent Cain has distinguished himself on the ’12 trail, it’s probably through his pledge to engage in hiring discrimination by barring Muslims from working in his administration.

* Rick Santorum: Santorum was drummed out of the Senate by Pennsylvania voters in 2006, losing his bid for a third term by 17 points to Democrat Bob Casey. Other modern era presidential candidates who lost Senate races before setting out to run for the White House… won a total of zero primaries and caucuses. Santorum won’t do any better, but he is passionately opposed to abortion, gay rights and President Obama — and he’ll have plenty of time to prove it tonight.

* Gary Johnson: The former New Mexico governor… is an authentic libertarian who wants to dismantle government but who also supports legal abortion and pot. Obviously, he’ll barely make a dent once the primaries roll around…

Ron Paul: His presence figures to foster th[e] same dynamic… it did in 2007 and 2008 — when no GOP debate was complete without one candidate using Paul as a punching bag [on social issues and defense] in order to look courageous and principled in the eyes of the party base.

Most of the country will watch this debate as presented by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the Comedy Channel tomorrow.

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