Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), the all-but-certain presidential candidate and presumed Republican front-runner, will not attend the first primary debate this Thursday in South Carolina.
"Gov. Romney will not be participating in this week's South Carolina debate because it's still early, the field is too unsettled and he's not yet an announced candidate,'' said Romney's campaign manager, Matt Rhoades.
Romney announced plans Monday to visit South Carolina on May 21 to deflect potential allegations that he is snubbing the state that has picked the GOP nominee in every election since 1980. It will be his first visit to South Carolina this year, reflecting Romney's much slower pace in 2012 in comparison to his hard-charging - and unsuccessful - 2008 campaign.
His absence from the FOX News debate is the latest sign that the forum will not live up to its billing by the state party as the kickoff of the 2012 presidential campaign. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's (R) spokesperson, Rick Tyler, confirmed Monday that he will not participate. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said on "Fox News Sunday" she will not be attending the debate.
That leaves former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), -- who says he looks forward to attending the debate -- former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain (R) -- who said Monday he has accepted an invitation to the debate -- and possibly former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer (R), though Roemer may have trouble coming up with the entrance fee for the debate. Candidates have until Tuesday to qualify for the debate by announcing a presidential exploratory committee and paying a $25,000 fee.
The next opportunity for the GOP candidates to share a stage will be June 7 in Manchester, N.H.
Updated at 3:25 p.m. to reflect Cain's acceptance of an invitation to the debate.