WASHINGTON — Republican White House hopefuls were set Thursday to hold their kick-off debate of the 2012 race, but most of the high-profile candidates likely rivals sitting out the event.

Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin? Absent. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney? Not there. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee? Nope. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich? Took a pass. Former ambassador to China John Huntsman? Skipping it.

Real estate mogul and reality television star Donald Trump and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, both mentioned as possible candidates seeking to challenge President Barack Obama, will also stay on the sidelines.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, arguably the best-known contender due to attend the 9:00 pm (0100 GMT Friday) event, scolded his potential competition in a column for the Daily Caller news website for not attending the debate.

"Some candidates are skipping tonight's Republican debate in South Carolina because they believe it's 'too soon' to begin the presidential campaign against Barack Obama. I only hope that it's not too late," he wrote.

Pawlenty accused Obama of mismanaging the recovery from the worst US economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, notably pointing to sluggish growth that has left unemployment at stubbornly high levels.

"His re-election may be hard to imagine. But he is an excellent campaigner who is already working hard to build the most expensive campaign in American history. Republicans will only win if we unite behind our conservative values and start the campaign against him now," Pawlenty warned.

Some Republican insiders say higher-profile contenders are hoping to shorten the duration of the race to the White House, avoiding a potentially savage primary fight that could leave the winner weakened in a showdown with Obama.

But the respected Gallup public opinion polling organization noted recently that, since 1952, Republicans always had a clear front-runner at this stage of the campaign, and that person almost always won the nomination.

The debate was sponsored by Fox News Channel and the Republican party of South Carolina a conservative early primary state known for its vast population of military veterans.

The event was to provide Pawlenty with a chance to boost his standing and give lesser-known candidates the opportunity to make the case that they deserve to shed the long-shot label and be considered along with the marquee names -- helping them secure the vast sums needed to fuel a strong campaign.

One of them has run for president before: Republican Representative Ron Paul, known as a fierce critic of US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, vainly challenged Senator John McCain for the party's nomination in 2008.

Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson is an avid skier who once scaled Mount Everest and favors legalizing marijuana.

Herman Cain is a former chief executive of the Godfather's Pizza chain -- motto: "A Pizza You Can't Refuse" -- and considered a skilled, quick-witted speaker.

Former senator Rick Santorum has left no doubt he will attack Obama relentlessly, including on foreign policy.

Days after the daring weekend raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, Santorum charged that Obama's policies had left America's enemies "less fearful and less respectful of us," according to the Des Moines Register newspaper.