Tim Pawlenty didn’t flub his national television debut but failed to dominate his lesser-known and more eccentric Republican rivals at the first debate of the 2012 presidential election.
If anything, the former Minnesota governor looked like a safe choice by the process of elimination, as some other participants on the Greenville, S.C. stage espoused views far outside the Republican mainstream. Next to Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, offering a libertarian defense of prostitution and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson giving a risk/benefit analysis of legalizing marijuana, Pawlenty certainly appeared to be the more viable candidate.
But Atlanta businessman Herman Cain and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum – neither of whom are taken seriously by the Republican establishment – seemed just as competent. Pawlenty passed up chances to deliver punishing blows to his real competition: Republican Mitt Romney, who declined to participate in the debate, and President Obama. And he offered less-than-definitive defenses of his previous support for cap-and-trade policy and the $6 billion deficit in his home state.
Pawlenty’s rivals didn’t treat him like a frontrunner, either. If there were any memorable lines, they came from Cain, the most gifted orator on stage -- and the only one who has never held public office. Mocking the experienced candidates in Washington, the Atlanta businessman asked to applause, “How’s that workin’ for you?’’
Cain was the clear winner in a focus group organized by Republican pollster Frank Luntz and aired after the Fox News debate cosponsored by the Republican party of South Carolina, a key early primary state.
Fox seemed to acknowledge Pawlenty’s top-tier status by offering him the first question. It was a question he must have expected, about the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this week. Pawlenty tried to walk the line between giving Obama his due and laying the groundwork for a broader foreign policy critique. “I do congratulate President Obama for the fine job he did…But that moment is not the sum total of American foreign policy. He’s made a number of other decisions…that I don’t agree with.’’
He also gave a measured response to a question about whether he supported waterboarding terrorist suspects. “I support enhanced interrogation techniques under limited circumstances,’’ he said. Another caveat-laden response suggested the U.S. needs to be tough on terrorism but make it clear that it is not at war with Islam.
Santorum advocated a much more confrontational foreign policy, saying that the Islam practiced in the Middle East requires “reformation.’’ He added, “We cannot continue to put the ideological battle in the closet.’’
Given the chance to attack the health care program Romney implemented as governor of Massachusetts, Pawlenty held back. He said because Romney wasn’t there to defend himself, “I’m not going to pick on him.’’ Instead Pawlenty focused his ire on the president’s health care agenda, which shares the Massachusetts program’s requirement that people buy insurance.
Santorum cast the debate in moral terms, saying opposing the federal health care legislation is about “keeping people free.’’
The two libertarians on the stage, Paul and Johnson, were the only candidates who said the U.S. should pull out immediately from Afghanistan. “This is crazy,’’ Johnson said.