Though missing most of its marquee players, the first debate of the 2012 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination featured some lively moments and clear divisions among the five candidates -- only one of whom agreed with President Obama's decision to withhold photos of Osama bin Laden's corpse.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the only one of the top-tier candidates in the Thursday debate in South Carolina, worked on burnishing his conservative credentials, repeating his apology for backing a cap-and-trade policy to put a price on carbon; insisting that he would back "enhanced interrogation techniques," which some have called torture, against terror suspects; saying he'd leave decisions about the teaching of creationism to local school officials and attacking President Obama's economic policies. Ex-Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania argued that he's been on the social issues bandwagon longer and defended his attacks on "radical feminism."
Herman Cain, a newcomer to politics, traded on his business background to argue that he'd be better to tackle the nation's economic problems. He was the only candidate on stage who did not raise his hand when the debaters were asked which of them would release pictures of the dead bin Laden.
In sharp contrast to their rivals, who were doing their best to cater to the socially conservative South Carolina Republican audience, the two libertarian candidates on stage, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, defended their support for the decriminalization of drugs as consistent with the Republican credo on reducing government interference in citizen's lives.
There was considerable talk about the presidential hopefuls who didn't take the stage in Greenville, S.C.: Mitt Romney, the putative GOP frontrunner, who declined to participate, and a number of other possible candidates who haven't made up their minds whether they are running.
Newt Gingrich hasn't yet formed an exploratory committee, but Fox News announced on Thursday that it was ending contracts with him and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who is participating in the debate, because of their likely bids.
The South Carolina Republican Party, which cohosted the debate with Fox News, required participants to establish presidential fundraising committees with the Federal Election Commission and pay a $25,000 filing fee for the South Carolina primary, a pivotal contest.
Since 1980, when South Carolina moved its Republican primary to be third in the early round of presidential eliminations, following Iowa and New Hampshire, its voters have always picked the eventual GOP nominee.
Hours before the debate was to get under way, two major news services announced they would be boycotting it over restrictions on photographers.
The Associated Press said it will neither take pictures nor report the event; Reuters said it will not send photographers. Officials of the news organizations said they are protesting debate organizers' refusal to let photographers take pictures during the debate.
Here's National Journal 's live-blog of the debate:
10:31 p.m. The first presidential debate of the 2012 season is in the books and some of the liveliest comments came toward the end when candidates were asked to comment about their potential rivals. Pawlenty on whether ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee would knock him out of the race "I love the Huck," but he adds, "The momentum is on my side." Paul on whether Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has eclipsed him in the tea party movement. "She's not here tonight so she hasn't quite done that . . . No, I don't feel threatened." Santorum on whether former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's three marriages and admitted extramarital affair will hurt him. "Stand up for the truth and let the chips fall where they may." Johnson on what his reality show would be if he could have one. "I'm really stumped." But that didn't last long. A mountain-climber who has climbed the highest peaks on four of the seven continents, he said it would be about that.
10:23 p.m. Cain on why he's not backing Romney -- his candidate four years ago: "He did not win."
10:19 p.m. Santorum insists he can take on Obama, reciting a list of Democratic incumbents he knocked off as a congressional and Senate candidate in Pennsylvania. You want somebody who can beat incumbents in tough times?" says Santorum, pointing at himself. Oops. How did that 2006 election turn out?
10:18 p.m. Pawlenty says Obama is vulnerable because of the economy: "He stood before the American people and said he was going to cut the deficit in half in his first term," Pawlenty says. "He didn't keep that promise."
10:14 p.m. The two libertarians on the stage win some cheers for their defense of controversial stands in favor of decriminalizing drug use. If you are consistent about standing up the First Amendment, "Yes, you have a right to do things that are very controversial," says Paul. Johnson, who has admitted smoking marijuana (for medical reasons) says he'd legalize it. Paul mocks the view that legalizing heroin would make it popular. You don't need the government to keep you away from it, he says to loud cheers. "I never thought heroin would get applause here in South Carolina," quips moderator Chris Wallace.
10:11 p.m. Santorum says he's not against working women, but resents the props they get over full-time moms: "Radical feminism has in fact created an atmosphere where working is affirmed in society and staying home is not."
10:07 p.m. "Do we have to?" Pawlenty's candid comment before he's asked to listen to an old interview where he backs the cap-and-trade approach to put a price on carbon. Afterwards, he reiterates he's changed his mind. "I don't try to duck it, bob it weave it. I'm just telling you I made a mistake."
10:05 p.m. Pawlenty pivots off a question about creationism to burnish his blue collar credentials: "My family is a union family," he said. "It's not about bashing unions it's about being pro-jobs...Pressed on to answer the creationism question: "I believe that should be left up to parents and local school districts."
10:02 p.m. Playing to the home crowd, Cain attacks the National Labor Relations Board effort to block a Boeing plant from moving to South Carolina, where it's harder for unions to organize: "We need to get the government out of the way inclkuding trying to tell a company where they should build a new plant," he says, winning applause and a big smile from Gov. Nikki Haley, in the audience.
10:00 p.m. Santorum offers a robust defense of the party's social conservative wing -- and takes a direct shot at Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels: "Anybody who would suggest we call a truce on the moral issues doesn't understand what America is all about," he says.
9:56 p.m. Johnson acknowledges he's writing off the anti-abortion vote, at least for primary season. "I support a woman's right to choose up to the viability of the fetus," he says.
9:54 p.m. Gays could get married if they want to under a President Paul: "The government should just be out of it," the congressman says of the definition of marriage. "I have my standards, but I shouldn't have the right to impose my standards on others... Just get the government out of it."
9:48 p.m. Santorum calls for a the U.S. to be more forceful with foreign allies, suggesting we put them on notice to either "side with the United States or we're going to deliver ultimatums." That could include cutting aid, he said. He stops short of calling for a break with Pakistan. "I want to engage Pakistan," he says. "But they have to be a partner and not an antagonist."
9:43 p.m. Cain asked about crackdown on illegal immigration in Arizona. “I don’t believe Arizona went too far…They were simply trying to protect themselves.’’
Does GOP risk alienating Hispanics with immigration rhetoric? Santorum tells story about how his father wouldn’t teach him Italian, wanted him to speak English. Then pivots to bashing Obama for failing to keep immigration reform promise. “He’s playing political games with a very important group of people in America.’’
Johnson says immigration creates jobs -- and recommends offering work visas to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the country. He's out on a limb in this crowd.
9:39 p.m. Gary Johnson finally gets a question! He defends his plan to make drastic cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, saying that switching to grants for states will create "50 laboratories" that will "develop best practices for delivering care" to the elderly and poor.
9:37 p.m. Pawlenty denies that the $5 billion deficit he left as governor of Minnesota is his fault. This is an issue that's not going to go away. And eventually it will be his rivals that will be bringing it up.
9:35 p.m. Johnson complains he's not getting enough questions and being ignored. Get used to it?
9:34 p.m. Is ending ObamaCare more important than keeping the U.S. from default? Santorum: “We have a program that is going to explode the debt even further.’’ Casts health care debate as a debate over “keeping people free.’’ Also: “It’s the most important issue that faces this country right now.’’
Paul shifting back and forth on his feet makes him look even more eccentric. But he sure has the most enthusiastic cheering section.
9:27 p.m. First commercial break. Pawlenty doing fine but no home runs.
9:25 p.m. Pawlenty given chance to criticize RomneyCare. Says because Romney not there to defend himself, “I’m not going to pick on him.’’ But…he rips individual mandate and ObamaCare. Team Pawlenty must be happy about this question, though he took it easy on Romney.
9:23 p.m. "We have the resources we need in this country right now to establish energy independence," says Cain. "Get our own oil out of the ground."
9:21 p.m. Pawlenty asked about stimulating job market other than tax cuts. He goes into his blue-collar bio. “I saw the face of economic worry in my hometown and in my own family.’’ Makes big play for hometown crowd by siding with South Carolina in its fight against federal government over Boeing plant moving from Washington to non-union facility in S.C.
9:19 p.m. Johnson defends his plans to abolish the corporate income tax -- "that will literally create tens of millions of jobs overnight" -- and limit unemployment benefits, suggesting tough love for the jobless. "At the point at which it runs out, that's when we really deal with the problems we have."
9:18 p.m. Pawlenty asked about “enhanced interrogation.’’ Previously would not endorse waterboarding. “I believe my position has not changed.’’ Tries to walk line between sounding tough on terrorism and making clear U.S. is not at war with Islam. “I support enhanced interrogation techniques under limited circumstances.’’
Paul and Johnson are only ones who say they won’t support waterboarding under any circumstances.
9:14 p.m. Ron Paul gets his second big ovation of the evening for his critique of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and the decision -- forced by his his own party -- against trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts. "Why are we afraitd of openness? We do not need secret prisons nor do we need the torture that goes on in those secret prisons," he says.
9:12 p.m. Santorum staking claim to be the most confrontational with Islamic extremism: “The version of Islam practiced in the Middle East…requires “reformation’’ Should not be timetable for withdrawal in Afghanistan. “We cannot continue to put the ideological battle in the closet.’’
9:11 p.m. Gary Johnson says Iraq was not a threat to our national security. Says he initially supported fighting al-Qaida in Afghanistan. No more. “This is crazy.’’
9:07 p.m. Ron Paul defends his non-interventionist foreign policy. Nation-building in Afghanistan had nothing to do with killing bin Laden. Says now is a “wonderful time” to pull out.
9:05 p.m. : Asked who would release photos of the dead Osama bin Laden -- something President Obama has elected not to do -- four of the five Republican candidates on stage raised their hands. The only no vote: Herman Cain.
9:04 p.m. Gov. Tim Pawlenty gets the first question. Predictably, it’s about the killing of Osama bin Laden. “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.’’
For more on South Carolina's important role in picking Republican nominees, watch NJ's Need to Know video.