Greenville, S.C. – The five candidates who appeared on stage in South Carolina Thursday night for the first Republican primary debate of the 2012 election season neatly fell within their prescribed roles.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul was back in rare form (along with his “End the Fed!” supporters), former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum preached the conservative social issues agenda, businessman Herman Cain entertained with catchy one-liners, and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson was in full libertarian mode. And former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, described before the debate as being the only top-tier candidate participating, was exceedingly competent and knowledgeable, but failed to dominate the stage and deliver blows.
At one point, Pawlenty was even handed the opportunity to criticize the health care plan former Massachusetts Governor and potential candidate Mitt Romney implemented in his state.
“Well Governor Romney is not here to defend himself so I’m not going to pick on him or the position he took in Massachusetts,” replied Pawlenty.
But while Pawlenty was seen as the only A-list candidate in the debate, Cain ended the night with the title of “winner,” confirmed by a focus group put together by Frank Luntz which was aired on Fox News’ “Hannity” after the debate. The focus group participants were in near universal agreement that Cain stole the show.
As expected, Thursday’s debate focused largely on foreign policy. The first question, which was directed at Pawlenty, asked about the death earlier in the week of Osama bin Laden. Pawlenty congratulated President Obama for the successful operation, but followed up by pointing out that the president has made a number of foreign policy decisions he disagrees with.
“That moment is not the sum total of American foreign policy,” Pawlenty added.
When asked his thoughts about whether the U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan, Johnson answered in a way that became characteristic of much of his night: confusing.
“I believe that timetable should be tomorrow,” said Johnson, “though I realize that tomorrow may be several months.”
When asked by the moderator Bret Baier if they would have released post-mortem photos of bin Laden, only Cain said no. When the subject changed to waterboarding, Johnson and Paul were the only candidates to indicate that they would never use the interrogation tool under any circumstance.
“I don’t think it serves our purpose,” said Paul.
Pawlenty defended his stance on waterboarding by saying, “There is a subgroup who think it’s ok…to kill innocent people. [The president’s] first order of business is to protect this country and the American people.”
Santorum, who talked in moral terms almost throughout the duration of the debate, took a hard line on aid to Pakistan in the wake of bin Laden’s death. “We need to engage the Pakistanis at a level we haven’t before,” he said. “We need to tell Pakistan…you either cooperate with us, or there will be consequences.”
At another point, Santorum called for the “reformation” of Islam in the Middle East. “We cannot continue to put the ideological battle in the closet,” he said.