The biggest boon for the five Republican presidential candidates who showed up in South Carolina for the first debate of the GOP 2012 race Thursday night may have been simply allowing viewers to put a name to a face.
The GOP field is still shaking out, and the debate was perhaps less notable for who was in attendance — Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Gary Johnson, and Ron Paul — than for who wasn’t — Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and Mike Huckabee.
Among the five GOP rivals on stage, only Ron Paul, the libertarian member of Congress from Texas whose 2008 GOP run inspired the Tea Party movement, is a conservative household name.
Even the most touted candidate of the largely undefined group of Republican contenders, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, has little name recognition in the polls, and as such, sought to make an issue of the bigger names considering a run who decided to sit out the early 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,” Mr. Pawlenty wrote in the Daily Caller, a direct dig at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and others who are waiting to officially get in the game. “I only hope that it’s not too late.”
Pawlenty even offered some incentive to supporters who tuned into the debate on Fox News: a limited-edition badge marking his first presidential debate and early access to his next web video.
Rounding out the group on stage was another former governor, a former senator and a former chief executive of a pizza restaurant chain. Each struggled to define themselves - while also jabbing the more recognizable faces, particularly Romney, absent from the stage.
The debate fell on the same week many Americans were celebrating the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, making the task of attacking the current commander in chief even more awkward for the candidates.
But that didn’t stop them from trying.
“I tip my cap to him in that moment,” Pawlenty said. “But that moment is not the sum total of American foreign policy. He’s made a number of other decisions relating to our security here and around the world that I don’t agree with.”
Pawlenty said he didn’t agree with Obama’s decision on Libya when the President waited to launch air strikes until he won support at the United Nations while Muammar Qaddafi led a violent crackdown on rebels.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) had the harshest assessment, arguing that the only foreign policies Obama had gotten right were those in which he had followed President George W. Bush’s lead.
“The decision he made with Osama bin Laden was a tactical decision,” Santorum said. “It wasn’t a strategic decision. The strategic decision was made by President Bush to go after him. What President Obama has done on his watch, the issues that have come up while he’s been president, he’s gotten it wrong strategically every single time.”
Of the five candidates only Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, said he would not have released a photo of the slain bin Laden, something Obama also said he will not do. But the Fox News moderators did not allow the candidates a chance to provide a reason for their decision.
Three of the participants endorsed waterboarding in some cases and argued it played a role in locating the compound where bin Laden was captured.
Paul and Gary Johnson, the former Governor of New Mexico, said they would not support waterboarding in any circumstance.
“Because you don’t achieve anything,” Paul remarked.
Santorum quickly interjected. “Well, that’s simply not true, Ron. I mean, the fact is that some of this information that we have found out that led to Osama bin Laden actually came from these enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Paul appeared to have the most enthusiastic following and most of his answers received thunderous applause from the audience.
At one point he was asked how he could support the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law banning gay marriage, and his belief that the federal government should be limited and has no business interfering with or defining marriage.
Paul said he supported the Defense of Marriage Act because it allowed states to determine whether they would allow gay marriage instead of having the federal government dictate a policy for the entire country.
“The Defense of Marriage Act was really designed to make sure that the states have the privilege of dealing with — and the federal government can’t impose their standards on them,” he said.
Many of the answers radically differed from one another, displaying a wide range of views within the Republican party.
Johnson said it didn’t make any sense to spend more money on building a longer, stronger fence between the U.S. and Mexico. He has scolded Republicans for vilifying immigrants.
“I start with the premise that immigrants are responsible for the creation of tens of millions of jobs as opposed to the taking away of jobs,”he said. “I think we should make it as easy as possible to get a work visa…immigration needs to be about work not welfare.”
The audience broke into the loudest applause of the night when Paul called for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
At one point, Paul also brought up the legalization of drugs.
“How many people here would use heroin if it were legal?” he asked.
All candidates agreed that the economy was Obama’s weak spot and criticized him repeatedly for his record.
Cain, a former Federal Reserve banker, blamed Obama’s energy policy for rising gas prices.
“If the world market believed that we were serious about energy independence and we were going to utilize all of our existing resources, the speculators would stop speculating up and they would speculate down until we get our own oil out of the ground,” he said.