9 p.m. ET on Fox News, the march of a thousand miles begins with a single lame step. Only five candidates on stage tonight: Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, the libertarian wonder twins Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, and … Tim Pawlenty, whose name recognition remains sufficiently low despite his aspiring first-tier status that he couldn’t turn down 90 minutes of free airtime. This is actually a uniquely bad setting for him, I think, even though he had no choice but to accept the invite. T-Paw would fare best in a debate with higher-profile candidates whom Republicans aren’t totally comfortable with, like Romney and Huckabee. In that dynamic, he’s the viable, likable, acceptable underdog. Against these four, he’s the opposite — the bland electable establishment favorite. Everyone else onstage has a passionate following, even Santorum insofar as he’s the evening’s designated social con champion. Not T-Paw, though; his plan, I assume, is to get in a bunch of digs at Obama, a few digs at Romney, and otherwise try to look presidential to curious viewers unfamiliar with him. His willingness to go over the top when pandering can be painful, though. Look for that tonight.

The field remains wiiiiide open:

According to the survey, conducted just before the news of the death of Osama bin Laden, 16 percent of Republicans and independents who lean Republican say they would be likely to support Mike Huckabee for the Republican presidential nomination. The former Arkansas governor ran for the White House in 2008, and while to date he hasn’t taken many steps towards launching another campaign, he has definitely not ruled out another bid for his party’s nomination.

Fourteen percent say they’d back Donald Trump. The billionaire businessman, real estate mogul and reality TV star says he will announce by June if he’s going to run for the White House.

One point back is Mitt Romney, at 13 percent. The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 GOP White House candidate has been adding to his campaign team in recent months and last month launched a presidential exploratory committee.

The poll indicates that 11 percent support Sarah Palin.

Fox News terminated the contracts of Santorum and Newt Gingrich earlier today after giving them a May 1 deadline a few months ago to decide on a presidential bid. RealClearPolitics claim that they’ve also given Huckabee an ultimatum to decide on a run by the end of the month or else his show will be dumped too. (Fox News denies it.) Still no word on Palin’s contract, possibly because she’s not as close to a decision as Huck is or possibly because she’s too big of a draw for FNC to cut loose just yet. Or … is it because Fox has an inkling that she’s not running after all?

I’m assuming the questions about the Bin Laden raid will come right up front, in which case I can’t wait to hear Paul’s and Johnson’s answers when they’re asked whether they too would have ordered the operation. Paul presumably will say no, embracing his unelectability with a big bear hug, and then segue into a lecture about how there wouldn’t be Bin Ladens anywhere in the world if America would just MYOB. (Paul actually fared best against Obama head to head in the CNN poll linked above, but that’ll change.) Johnson might surprise us, though. Like Rand Paul, I don’t think he’s as rhetorically wedded to isolationism as Ron is. He might, in fact, use the elder Paul as a foil on some of his less palatable policy positions, sort of a libertarian version of good cop/bad cop in which GJ’s willing to intervene tentatively in foreign affairs where the rEVOLution fears to tread. He needs to distinguish himself somehow. That’s his best opening.

Exit question: Why didn’t John Bolton jump in the race a few weeks ago in order to take advantage of the smaller stage tonight? The Bin Laden raid and new attention to Pakistan and Afghanistan would have played right into his hands, as would the chance to do hawkish battle with doves like Paul and Johnson. A missed opportunity.