MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- We've got to stop meeting like this.
Republican candidates are gathering here for their third debate in six nights. There's another one set for Florida less than two weeks from now, and one in California 10 days after that. At this point, it's as if the entire campaign were turning into a high school forensics society; it's possible that the debates have gone past the point of diminishing marginal utility and into a new realm where they actually leave voters less informed than they otherwise would be.
That could change if the Fox News folks can find some new questions or new ways to ask them, but considering they just aired a debate Sunday night -- which covered more or less the same ground as the one the night before -- I'm not holding my breath. Last time Fox News sponsored a debate in South Carolina, in May, the network subjected the candidates and the world to a prolonged hypothetical involving a ticking bomb and torture. (At least "24" is off the air now because of the writers' strike, so maybe they won't feel the need to hype it through the news division tonight.)
But Myrtle Beach seems to be taking the whole thing extremely seriously, so maybe I should, too. The security lines outside the debate site -- already set up six hours before things get going -- seem more befitting a G-8 summit than a meeting of the GOP contenders. Inside, there are metal detectors at each entrance, though I was able to sneak in without emptying my pockets by following South Carolina Republican Party spokesman Rob Godfrey in. Someone has built a sand sculpture of all the candidates across the street from the Sheraton Hotel and Convention Center, dubbed "Mount Myrtle" instead of Mount Rushmore. Mitt Romney's hair is a bit wavier in sand than in real life (Sand Mitt looks more like Doc Brown from "Back to the Future"), but as a project, it's ... impressive.
Some campaign staffers are grumbling a bit about having yet another debate so soon after the last few, and the location -- a three-hour drive from Columbia, where most campaigns have their headquarters -- made it hard for anyone to do much in the way of talking to voters before prep time began. Most campaigns are rolling out of South Carolina for Michigan over the weekend, since there's an election there on Tuesday.
Still, there is a lot at stake for several candidates. John McCain is starting to reconnect with the GOP establishment types he first tried to lock down early last year; a strong performance tonight, followed by a win Tuesday in Michigan, would help his fundraising and momentum a lot. Mike Huckabee is leading in some polls here, and almost always does well in debates. He's banking on support from upstate religious conservatives in South Carolina, and from downscale voters in Michigan, so expect a mix of economic populism and family values from him tonight. Romney -- despite his sand sculpture -- has pulled his ads off the air in South Carolina and Florida and is essentially banking his future on winning his home state, Michigan. Aides felt they had settled on a good message for Romney by the time he finished losing New Hampshire to McCain -- his business experience makes him the best candidate to reshape Washington -- and he'll try to hit that theme again here. (Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani and the Ron Paul revolution will be here as well, but they may not get as much attention from the Fox crew, based on where polls put their support in the state.)
The bottom line, if you're watching tonight? Remember that this is South Carolina, where the winner of the primary has gone on to be the Republican nominee in every election cycle since Ronald Reagan in 1980. The state GOP is proud of its "first in the South" status, and the election is only nine days off, so this debate may get more exposure than most. But also remember, this is South Carolina, so you can expect things to get a little weird. At a warm-up dinner last night to raise money for the state GOP, Ollie North apparently tossed plenty of read meat to conservative activists. If Ollie was just the appetizer, then tonight's debate could be juicy indeed.