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.
The 90-minute debate focused only a little bit on the economy, something South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint told The Daily Caller disappointed him. He said he will have to wait and see where candidates stand on key economic questions before lending his endorsement to any candidate.
“I would have liked to see more on the debt, the economy, what would you do about the debt ceiling, the balanced budget amendment,” he said. “I’m going to wait to see what these candidates do when we start dealing with debt ceiling and balanced budget amendment and control on spending. We didn’t really get into that enough tonight.”
The conservative senator indicated that his endorsement would hinge, at least in part, on whether or not a candidate supported a balanced budget amendment.
Before the debate, the news focused more on the potential presidential candidates who had decided not to attend, rather than the ones who were confirmed participants. The same was true after the debate concluded.
Beforehand, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus downplayed the absence of other potential 2012 candidates, telling reporters “As we all know, there will be numerous debates through the whole process and it’s a long haul to Iowa and this is the first of many.”
When asked by TheDC if as RNC chairman he was worried about the slow start to the Republican primary season, Preibus said he was not because there is still plenty of time.
“I think Americans are sick and tired of two-year, knock-out, drag-out contests with a gazillion debates and forums,” he said. But even he showed he was anxious for all the candidates to finally get in, saying, “It’s about time to get started…It’s 18 months away.”
DeMint, however, told TheDC he actually believed the low debate participation was a good thing. “We just had it to five people tonight,” he said. “If we had had eight or 10, we wouldn’t have heard much from these folks we didn’t know well. We know the others pretty well.”
The two libertarian Republicans on stage – Johnson and Paul – had strong showings of support, eliciting rounds of applause after lines about ending the Federal Reserve and legalizing drugs. One Gary Johnson supporter, Steve Swank, told TheDC he traveled down to the debate just to volunteer for Johnson. In 2008, Swank said he was a Paul supporter. This time, “I think Gary Johnson is more realistic,” said Swank. “I think he’s more electable and I think he would do a better job against Obama in a general election.”
Seen as the only candidate with a serious chance of winning the nomination to participate in the debate, Pawlenty had the most to lose. And while it was by no means a poor or loosing performance, the post-debate consensus seemed to be that the former governor failed the seize the moment he was given or capitalize on his fellow participants’ weaknesses.
As the primary process moves forward, South Carolina will continue to play a critical role in the Republican primary. Both Gov. Nikki Haley and DeMint have promised to make endorsements.
Curtis Loftis, current state treasurer, summed up what it will be like in South Carolina in the coming months to TheDC, saying, “From now on, we have presidential candidates floating around like rats. You go to a restaurant, there they are; you go to a baseball game, there they are.”