The first GOP presidential debate of the 2012 campaign was held tonight in South Carolina and was broadcast live on the Fox News Channel.
The bigger names (Romney, Gingrich, Palin, Huckabee) stayed away, which was probably just as well (for those of us who watched the debate). It gave us a chance to look more closely at the ones who showed.
How’d they do?
The on-line polls and the post-game focus groups came up big for Herman Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO who has developed a kind of cult following among Tea Party Republicans across the country. It is impossible to imagine Mr. Cain as president of the United States, but that’s part of his appeal. You can root for him and say how much you like him without ever having to worry. He’s not going to be the nominee.
Rep. Ron Paul was probably the biggest winner tonight, politically, in that the other libertarian in the race, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, was awful. No one really had any idea what to expect from Mr. Johnson, but voters are always inclined to hope for the best on the initial offering. Johnson’s initial offering sent all the libertarians scurrying back to Rep. Paul. He solidified Rep. Paul’s standing as the libertarian’s champion in the GOP race.
Senator Rick Santorum seemed narrow and a bit weird. He talked about how he was an incumbent beater in Pennsylvania (and would reprise this role next year against the current incumbent president). But he’s also someone who got crushed when he ran for re-election in 2006, by 18 points as Chris Wallace pointed out. Pitching yourself (in the closing statement) as a political winner on the heels of a crushing defeat seemed….deluded. It also seemed out of place. Closing statements are about core beliefs, not political box scores.
That said, Mr. Santorum, given the chance to trash Newt Gingrich, did not do so. He was almost gracious in turning the answer he was expected to give into a kind of defence of Mr. Gingrich. It was his best moment of the debate. You liked him better for it.
Finally, there was former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, for whom tonight was actually important. For the moment, Mr. Pawlenty lives in-between. He’s thought to be someone who has the potential to play at the presidential level, but he’s not (yet) in the first tier of GOP presidential candidates. If former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced tomorrow that they were running for president, Tim Pawlenty’s campaign would evaporate. He exists as a “serious” presidential candidate because others have chosen not to run.
His task, tonight, was to make you believe that he belongs, that he deserves consideration as a political heavyweight — a future president — on the merits. Did he advance that notion? I didn’t think so, but that’s me. Others seemed to think he did, at least to some degree.
He was polished and he handled most of the questions well. He was smoother than the others; his media training has paid off. What he lacks is intellectual heft; he speaks talking point boilerplate. He’ll never be the “new ideas” candidate. He doesn’t really seem that interested in ideas.
How did the others (Romney, et alia) do by staying away from the debate? Not well, I would say. Republican primary voters and caucus attenders are fired up. They want to get this thing started. They want to let it rip. They’re weirded out by how little presidential campaign activity there really is in places like South Carolina. At some level, they feel cheated by this; like they’re being taken for granted. Voters never like that. And they have long memories.