The still-incomplete field of Republican presidential contenders sparred gently in the party's first formal debate on Thursday, with five candidates reserving their harshest remarks for President Obama rather than their opponents for the GOP nomination. The South Carolina debate, hosted by Fox News, was as notable for the would-be candidates who didn't show up — Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee, among others — as for those who did, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain. Who came out on top? Here, a breakdown of the debate's winners and losers:
"Some questioned why Pawlenty showed up with the 'B' team," says Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post. But the former governor "did what he came to do: Demonstrate a level of preparedness and rhetorical prowess that many voters had not previously witnessed." He "showed himself fluent on foreign policy, down to earth (his meatpacking-town background came up more than once)," and took the opportunity to work on his delivery when the stakes were relatively low. Now he's well-prepared to distinguish himself when "the other top-tier contenders join the fray."
"Even compared to T-Paw, Cain was a picture of self-confidence without being smarmy," says Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. Plenty of buzz surrounds the political newcomer's candidacy among committed conservatives, but this was his big chance to introduce himself to the nation, and he nailed it by turning in a "warm, engaging, charming," and gaffe-free performance. Cain also got in one of the better licks against Obama, saying that the president's economic policies made him vulnerable to the right Republican. "He's going to have to do more than kill one terrorist to pull this out," Cain said.
The biggest winner of the night wasn't even there, says Ben Smith at Politico. Romney's presence was felt all night, and even as a no-show, he scored at least a draw with Pawlenty. Sure, Romney took a risk by skipping the event, but it paid off when Pawlenty and a "spurned Fox News" passed up on opportunities to "punish him in his absence." If that kind of treatment becomes "the rule, Romney's path may be unexpectedly smooth."
Even though Pawlenty was the only participant who's considered top-tier, says Linda Feldmann at The Christian Science Monitor, he still polls in single digits. And when he had the chance to knock down his top rival by highlighting similarities between Mitt Romney's Massachusetts health care reform plan and Obama's, Pawlenty politely demurred because Romney wasn't there to respond. That's a fine way to make friends, but a lousy way "to build name recognition."
The Republican Party
The debate was "an awkward moment for the Republican Party," says Dan Balz in The Washington Post. It "came at a moment when Obama's approval ratings are spiking" in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death. With the heavy-hitters absent, it was up to third-stringers to go after Obama, and they had trouble poking holes in his foreign policy given the timing. Indeed, the evening was "so bereft of consequence," says John Nichols at The Nation, that even House Speaker John Boehner, spotted at a Washington steakhouse while the debate was going on, said he would just "read about it tomorrow."
The former New Mexico governor "was the candidate who was most out of his league," say Noah Kristula-Green and Tim Mak at FrumForum. Even the Fox News questioners failed to take him seriously. One asked "what he would want his own reality TV show to be." Moderator Bret Baier noted that Johnson has run nearly 30 marathons, which prompted the wince-worthy follow-up question, "What are you running from?"