There was really only one candidate on the stage at the first GOP presidential primary debate Thursday night in Greensville, South Carolina: Tim Pawlenty. Now, that may not be the case at the next one — the former two-term Minnesota governor was the only Republican A-lister who participated in this debate — but for one night, he proved why he deserves to be considered a top-tier candidate.
Pawlenty’s challenge was to show he could stand out on a stage full of personalities. He was polite: the only candidate to take time out of his first answer to thank the audience, moderators and his rivals for coming. He was agile, dodging a question on teaching creationism in schools by returning to the previous question on unions and then refusing to get nailed down on his personal opinion of evolution. He was gracious when booed for his prior support of capping greenhouse gas emissions, bluntly telling the audience that he’d screwed up. In every answer he made sure to include some biographical tidbit: viewers left knowing he grew up in a union, blue collar household and that he’s traveled many times to Iraq and Afghanistan.
And, perhaps mostly importantly given the current political climate, he delivered a crisp answer to a question about why he left Minnesota with a $6 billion budget shortfall. “This two year budget cycle ends in the black this summer and the deficit two years after — that is a projection,” Pawlenty said, “It’s based on preposterous assumptions. It assumes a 25% or so increase in state spending. That’s outrageous. If they live within their means there’d be no deficit at all.”
But voters learned something about Pawlenty’s personality (beyond his knack for absorbing media training) as well. He was the calmest and most leader-like of those on the stage. He didn’t wink or quip. He was pleasant without being funny. He seemed to be striving for noticeably acceptable. And perhaps that was a smart way to go about wooing a GOP primary electorate that’s anxious to oust Obama, but wary of the flawed, big-name Republican candidates said to be seeking the nomination.
Pawlenty may have also benefited from comparison. The other four candidates on the stage, who offer few prospects for getting anywhere near the nomination, provided some comic relief and voiced a few policy positions that lie a little (OK, a lot) outside of the mainstream of the Grand Old Party. Texas Congressman Ron Paul advocated legalizing heroin. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson talked about ending prohibition of marijuana – not to mention his pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and pro-immigration stances that got him booed by the audience. Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain’s only plan for Afghanistan was to study it if and when elected. And former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum called for a “reformation” of Islam.
Paul and Johnson kept busy wrestling for the mantle of libertarianism. Cain tried to deliver the never-been-elected-but-the-country-needs-a-CEO pitch. Santorum happily hogged the social conservative spotlight. When asked about Indiana Governor Mitch Daniel’s call for a “truce” on social issues, Santorum practically called Daniels – another potential rival – un-American. “Any body that would suggest that we should call a truce on the moral issues doesn’t understand what America’s all about,” Santorum said. “We are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. Rights come from God and the first of them is life.”
All of the candidates, except Cain, said they’d release the photo of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. Three of them – Cain, Pawlenty and Santorum – said they’d allow “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, under certain circumstances.
Perhaps the most telling parts of the debate were when the candidates took subtle swipes at their absent potential rivals. At one point, Pawlenty was asked about former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s health care plan. “Governor Romney’s not here to defend himself so I’m not going to pick on him or what he created in Massachusetts,” Pawlenty replied. “But I will say this: the solution is not to drag the problem to D.C. and create a limited choice, big government solution.” Not to pick on him, but it sounds like Pawlenty called Romney a big government man.
When asked if congressional Tea Party Caucus chair Rep. Michele Bachmann had eclipsed him, Paul did a double take. “She’s not here tonight, so I dunno about that,” he laughed. “No I don’t feel threatened.”
Cain was asked hy he didn’t endorse Romeny now as he did in 2008. “I’m running now rather than supporting him because he did not win. So I’m gonna try my time,” he said.
Santorum was asked whether former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s past extra-martial affairs would bother him. “I would just tell him: Newt, stand up for the truth and let the chips fall where they may.”
And Johnson, in perhaps the most painful moment of the night, was asked what kind of reality show he would have. “Well, I wouldn’t be like Sarah Palin crawling on her hands and knees up the ice fall in Alaska,” he said.
Then, as was often the case throughout the night, The next question for Pawlenty was more serious: Why, after months of campaigning, is he trailing [former Arkansas Governor] Mike Huckabee, who hasn’t yet announced a potential candidacy, in the polls? Pawlenty summed up his strategy: “I’m still not very well known outside of Minnesota, but as I get more well know I get more support and momentum on my side.” For Pawlenty, Thursday night was all about name recognition – trying to get out there and create buzz. To that end, the first debate served him well.