Live at 8 p.m. ET on C-SPAN, this is as close as it gets to kick-off for the primaries. No Palin and no Huck, which isn’t surprising given how coy they’re being about their intentions, but I’m surprised that Romney is skipping it. There were rumbles a while back that he’s thinking of blowing off Iowa this time, dismissing it as a lost cause given the heavy social con presence. Here’s your first really solid piece of evidence that that’s true.

Tonight’s line-up: Pawlenty, Gingrich, Santorum, Herman Cain, and Buddy Roemer(?), only one of whom stands a shot at winning the nomination. Ramesh Ponnuru sizes up his chances:

He would probably beat Romney in a head-to-head race, too. Like Romney, Pawlenty was elected governor of a blue state in 2002. But there are at least five big differences between them that primary voters may find tell in the Minnesotan’s favor. First, Pawlenty was elected as a conservative whereas Romney ran as a moderate. Second, Pawlenty pursued a more confrontational strategy: He didn’t cut any grand bipartisan deal, as Romney did with Ted Kennedy on health care. Third, and as a result, Pawlenty’s record does not include anything as likely to offend conservative voters as Romney’s Massachusetts health-care law, which made the purchase of health insurance compulsory.

Fourth, Pawlenty won reelection in his blue state, even in 2006, which was a slaughterhouse of a year for Republicans. Romney, by contrast, left the governorship after one term: He was unable to position himself as a conservative for a presidential run while staying popular in his home state. Fifth, Pawlenty has an ability to connect to blue-collar voters that Romney has never demonstrated…

If Pawlenty loses, then, it is likely to be because the primary never becomes a Pawlenty-Palin or Pawlenty-Romney race. Breaking out of the pack is Pawlenty’s challenge. The slowness of the current presidential race works in his favor. It’s slower than the 2008 race for two reasons. Pawlenty is one of the few candidates without a Fox News contract. Most of the other candidates are waiting to declare themselves officially in the race because when they do they will lose the ability to reach a lot of Iowa and New Hampshire voters while getting paid for it. And the primary rules have been altered to encourage states to hold their contests later. These two factors could make Pawlenty a tortoise in a field of hares.

If Huck doesn’t run, he’d have a fair shot at winning Iowa. If Palin doesn’t run either, he’d have a great shot, and would then start eyeing an upset in South Carolina as the newly designated “viable anti-Romney” candidate in the field. But if Huckabee does run? Well, then this year’s Minnesota winter will be extra cold and lonely, my friends.

RCP has a fun preview of tonight’s event featuring the executive director of the Iowa GOP comically straining to hype the hell out of it. (“If you stumble, it could very well be the end. It’s that big.”) T-Paw’s challenge is simple: Don’t let Gingrich, Cain, and/or Santorum overshadow you with barnburner speeches. If they do and he ends up as an afterthought, it’ll feed the “he’s too bland to win” narrative. Exit question: Why isn’t Michele Bachmann there tonight? She’s an Iowa native and can dish rhetorical red meat better than any of these five. Seems like a missed opportunity.