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/ 5 Iyar, 5771
Inside the GOP debate: Pawlenty underwhelms, Cain struggles, Santorum scores
Greenville, S.C. - In the hours before the first Republican debate Thursday night, a number of established pols here in Greenville saw it as a showdown between former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and a bunch of other guys. "It's Pawlenty," said one veteran of state politics. "He's got a chance to move up into the first tier or stay in the second tier." The debate's other participants -- Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Gary Johnson -- weren't going to be much more than a supporting cast.
That's what the pols thought. Among the non-pols, also known as the people, there was intense interest in Cain. The former CEO of Godfather's Pizza and radio host has become a Tea Party favorite, with strongly-held opinions on issues he knows by heart from his business career, like job creation and economic growth. The debate, according to his fans, would be the perfect format for him to make a great first impression on the national stage.
Nothing worked out exactly as planned. When it was over, Pawlenty had underwhelmed the audience, doing what many felt was an OK job -- passable answers, no gaffes -- but also not taking full advantage of the opportunity he had to distinguish himself from the others.
Cain had scored points on some key issues -- and thrilled participants in Frank Luntz's Fox News focus group -- but left observers baffled by what appeared to be an astonishing lack of preparation on a key national security issue. And a third candidate -- Santorum -- who hadn't been picked as a pre-debate favorite, turned in the evening's most solid performance.
Pawlenty, viewed as a near-first tier candidate by much of the establishment but largely unknown in South Carolina and most of the country, tried hard to establish himself. He told the crowd not once but twice that he grew up in a meat-packing town in Minnesota; he touted his record as governor; he explained that he has "been all over the Middle East, I've been to Iraq five times, I've been to Afghanistan three times, I've been to other countries in the Mideast, Turkey, Kuwait, Jordan, Israel and others." He also made a well-timed play for the hearts of South Carolinians by being the first to denounce the National Labor Relations Board's attempt to strongarm Boeing away from expanding its operations into non-union South Carolina. "It's outrageous," Pawlenty said.
For all that, Pawlenty didn't deliver the sharp, clear statements that win debates. He praised President Obama for the killing of Osama bin Laden but didn't have a tightly-focused critique of Obama's foreign policy. He was gentlemanly with an absent possible opponent, Mike Huckabee -- "I love the Huck…he's been a colleague and friend" -- without making much of a case for why voters should prefer him over the former Arkansas governor. And he was equally gentlemanly in refusing to criticize the evening's most prominent no-show, Mitt Romney, for his Massachusetts health care mess -- "Governor Romney is not here to defend himself, so I'm not going to pick on him" -- but he didn't offer a sharply-defined statement on reforming entitlements.
Talking to reporters afterward, Pawlenty defended his style, which is sometimes called "Minnesota nice." "I believe in Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment," he told reporters, referring to the late president's dictum that one should not speak ill of a fellow Republican. Perhaps Pawlenty forgot that Reagan once challenged a sitting Republican president and became a fan of the 11th Commandment mostly after, not before, he became president. Still, Pawlenty said it wasn't his place to speak ill of Romney or RomneyCare. "I'm going to try my best not to criticize other Republican candidates," Pawlenty said. "I don't think it's a good idea to pop somebody when they don't have a chance to defend themselves."
When the candidates were introduced and brought on stage, a few minutes before the cameras turned on and the debate actually began, it was Herman Cain, striding confidently, who got the loudest applause. (Gary Johnson got a few laughs when he actually ran onto the stage, as if onto a football field.) The audience was ready to love Cain, and they did love his statements on issues like the economy, energy policy, and the Defense of Marriage Act. But it was Cain's answer on a straightforward if not simple question -- what would you have the United States do in Afghanistan? -- that created the most head-scratching moment of the night.
It started when moderator Bret Baier asked Cain about a statement Cain made in an interview in January in which Cain said that as president he would rely heavily on whatever his generals and the experts told him should be done in the war. "You're running for president," Baier said to Cain. "After almost ten years in Afghanistan, you don't have your own plan yet about what you would do in Afghanistan?"
"No," Cain answered. 'Because it's not clear what the mission is. That's the bigger problem. It's not clear what the mission is…"
Baier followed up: "How would you define winning in Afghanistan right now, as you're looking at it as a candidate?"
"My point is," Cain explained, "the experts and their advice and their input would be the basis for me making that decision. I'm not privy to a lot of confidential information."
It was an unusual way of approaching the question, to say the least. Was Cain saying that he couldn't answer any questions about foreign policy, because he didn't have the kind of classified information that only presidents have? When Cain met with reporters after the debate, he explained that he approached Afghanistan like he would a business decision. "A good businessman does not make a decision without considering all of the facts," he said. "I haven't been privy to all of the confidential information to make that decision."
But if Cain could only formulate a policy position after receiving presidential-level briefings -- did that mean he might never have a position as a candidate on Afghanistan? "That's probably the case," Cain said. Perhaps sensing that might be a problem down the road, he then explained that he might be able to put together "some sort of strategic approach" from publicly-available information. "What I'm saying is I will not be pushed into spitting out a plan so people can say, this is his plan."
With Pawlenty delivering a lackluster performance, and Cain delivering a popular but deeply flawed one, who exceeded expectations? The answer -- and it certainly defied expectations -- was Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania. And Santorum succeeded not by emphasizing his well-known social-conservative credentials but by making a series of solid and tough statements on foreign policy.
Santorum's best moment came when he appeared to discover the Republican formula for praising President Obama's achievement in killing Osama bin Laden while bashing just about everything else Obama has done on foreign policy. Challenged by Baier about a recent claim that Obama has made America "less safe," Santorum made a simple but effective case: everything Obama has done well in foreign policy has been a continuation of the policies of George W. Bush, while every new policy decision Obama has made has been wrong.
"If you look at what President Obama has done right in foreign policy, it has always been a continuation of the Bush policies," Santorum said. "He's done right by keeping Guantanamo open. He's done right by finishing the job in Iraq. He's done right by trying to win in Afghanistan. Those were existing policies that were in place. The decision he made with Osama bin Laden -- that was a tactical decision. It wasn't a strategic decision. The strategic decision was made by President Bush, to go after him."
What President Obama has done on his watch, the issues that have come up while he has been president, he's gotten it wrong strategically every single time," Santorum continued. "Whether it's in Central America, Colombia and Honduras, whether it's in the Middle East, with Egypt and Syria, and most importantly with Iran -- we had an opportunity 18 months ago to topple a regime that is a sworn enemy, is at war with this country, is funding terrorist attacks against our troops and in the Middle East, and the president of the United States sided with the mullahs instead of the demonstrators."
Maybe you disagree with a particular or two, but Santorum had found a workable way to criticize Obama on foreign policy in a post-bin Laden political environment. Afterward, speaking to reporters, Santorum expanded his critique to make a claim he didn't make onstage.
"Hillary Clinton was right," Santorum said. "This guy wasn't ready to be the leader of the free world, and, I might add, I don't think he wants to be."
"He doesn't want to be the leader of the free world?"
"I think he wants to be a president who actually moves America away from being the leader of the free world."
Santorum scored other points in the debate -- he was effective in making the case that everyone in America should speak English and made a principled objection to Mitch Daniels' proposed "truce" on social issues. He stumbled on some others -- defending his vote for the Medicare prescription drug benefit, he led viewers to wonder why, if it's all worked out so well, he has also said he regrets supporting it. But in the end, there was no doubt that Santorum walked out of the hall in better political shape than he walked in.
How does all of this affect the race in South Carolina and nationally? Probably not a lot. After the debate, Sen. Jim DeMint, whose endorsement is the most eagerly sought-after of any in South Carolina, refused to comment on any individual candidate's performance. DeMint said he would have preferred to hear more from the candidates about the deficit and the current debt ceiling argument. But everyone knows that DeMint's endorsement, if he chooses to make one, will be extremely important in the race, and this debate did not move him to say anything good about any particular candidate.
And besides, even the most connected politicos are not really sure that anyone is tuned in to the presidential conversation at this point in the game. Before the debate, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus visited reporters and was asked about the small field for the debate and whether the slow start to the race is hurting the party. "I'm not worried about it at all," Priebus answered. "I think there's plenty of time, and quite frankly I think Americans are sick and tired of two year knock-out-drag-out contests with a gazillion debates and forums."
But if Americans are sick and tired of all that politicking, a reporter asked, then why have this debate at all? "Because I think it's about time to get started," Priebus answered. "It's 18 months away, it's eight and a half months to Iowa, and I think it's an appropriate time to start the process." In other words: Americans are sick and tired of this, so let's give them more.
In the end, nobody knows how much an early showdown like the debate in Greenville will affect things. But this was the first chance to see the Republican field, such as it is, onstage together. Some of these men could well be factors throughout the primary season, and it's good that they're finally debating each other for the world to watch.
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