This afternoon will see many of the 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls gathering at The American Principles Project Palmetto Freedom Forum in Columbia, South Carolina. Keep in mind that this is not a “debate” as such, but rather a discussion forum where the candidates will answer questions from their host, Senator Jim DeMint, along with Congressman Steve King (R – Iowa) and Dr. Robert George, founder of the American Principles Project.

Some of the faces on display will already be familiar to the national audience, including Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and even… Newt! Missing will be Rick Santorum, who did not receive an invitation along with everyone else who didn’t manage to break the 5% mark in any recent national polls. But the big surprise is the late breaking news that newly minted frontrunner Rick Perry will not be in attendance. The stated reason is that he’s heading back home to Texas to oversee relief efforts for the wildfires currently sweeping across his state.

The talking heads – having very little else to do on a holiday weekend – were all abuzz over the prospect of the rest of the field opening up the big guns on the Texas governor, but this is a fairly solid excuse for bowing out of the meeting. He’s running for President and this sort of disaster is the type of thing voters expect a chief executive to be on top of. Good decision? Will Romney and Bachmann go after him as hard as they might have if he wasn’t dashing home to handle a natural disaster?

It’s hard to say if this forum will change anything in the national polls. The last numbers out of Iowa are showing Perry at 29, with Bachmann grabbing 18, Mitt with 17 and Ron Paul at 14%. It’s still early enough in the process that it will mostly just be the media and the hard core political nerds paying attention at this point. (And let’s face it… if you’re spending your Labor Day reading Hot Air, you probably fall into one of those two categories.) But if nothing else, it will be a preview of what we can expect in the first real debate on Wednesday. Think of it as a shake down cruise.

The good folks at Town Hall are providing a live stream of the proceedings, along with analysis, and we’ll also provide that for you below. Feel free to critique the field as DeMint and company put them through their paces. The official kickoff time will be at 3 p.m. ET.

Update (AP): In case you’re near a TV, CNN will carry the forum live. Perry’s making a smart move here by skipping it to attend to the wildfires, and not merely because it shows his priorities are in the right order. As the southern “true conservative” in the field, South Carolina should be the easiest state for him to win notwithstanding Bachmann’s best efforts to earn an endorsement from Nikki Haley. He loses little by missing this and maybe gains some extra buzz for Wednesday’s Reagan Library debate, since that will now mark his true debut as a presidential candidate. And if Romney or Bachmann attacks him today in his absence, he gets a sneak preview of what’s coming at him on Wednesday so that he can prepare a response.

Update (AP): Some commenters are grumbling about Perry skipping the debate, although my hunch is that if he stayed and participated, they’d be grumbling that he didn’t rush home to help Texans instead. If you doubt the severity of these fires, which reached the suburbs of the state capital (but luckily are now advancing away from the city), read this and Dave’s post at Ace’s site. It’s zero percent contained as I write this. His aides tell CBS that he’ll be at the debate at the Reagan Library on Wednesday.

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