Lesser-known GOP presidential hopefuls debate in South Carolina

The 2012 presidential campaign lurched to an unconventional start Thursday night, as the Republican Party put several lesser-known candidates on display in the first debate of the season.

A handful of second-tier contenders was given 90 minutes of precious national TV time after better-known GOP contenders declined to participate. The event might have played to the advantage of Tim Pawlenty, the most heralded of those on the South Carolina debate stage. But it didn’t exactly work out that way.

Instead, tough questioning from the debate panel repeatedly put the former Minnesota governor on the defensive. At a moment he hoped to use to introduce himself to voters who, he acknowledged, know very little about him, he was forced to explain why he balanced his state’s budget by borrowing $6 billion from local school districts, leaving the state billions of dollars in the red.

Then came a discussion of Pawlenty’s past support for an energy cap-and-trade system, a climate-change initiative that Republicans almost universally condemn.

Chris Wallace of Fox News, which cosponsored the event and carried it live, prefaced his question to Pawlenty by saying that he would play for viewers an ad in which the then-governor delivered a pitch that, Wallace said, suggested Pawlenty was “far more committed to cap and trade” than he was now letting on.


“Do we have to?” asked Pawlenty, somewhat ruefully. The ad featured a Pawlenty plea to “cap greenhouse gas pollution now.”

Pawlenty said that all executives are going to have some “clunkers” in their backgrounds.

“I made a mistake,” he said. “Nobody’s perfect.”

On the same day that President Obama visited the former World Trade Center site in New York to honor victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack after the death of Osama bin Laden, several of the GOP candidates departed from their party’s tough-on-defense reputation. Their answers would have seemed more at home in a Democratic forum, but drew applause in one of the nation’s most conservative Republican states.

The two libertarians in the GOP field, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, delivered vigorous dissents from the military policy of both the Obama and Bush administrations. Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, said he opposed both the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Obama’s intervention in Libya. He criticized America’s expensive nation-building endeavor in Afghanistan “and borrowing 43 cents out of every dollar to do that,” saying, “To me that is crazy.”

Paul, a Texas congressman making his second GOP presidential run, said the fighting in Afghanistan bore little relationship to the search for Bin Laden, and that while the United States was bombing neighboring Pakistan, it was at the same time providing that nation with billions in aid.

“Boy, it’s a wonderful time for this country now to reassess it and get the troops out of Afghanistan,” said Paul, to loud applause from the audience at the Peace Center for the Performing Arts in Greenville.

Herman Cain, a former pizza company executive and radio talk-show host, said “the bigger problem” was that the goals of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan were no longer clear to the American people.

Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, joined Pawlenty and Cain in expressing support for a resumption of waterboarding, an interrogation technique that some regard as torture.

Santorum, whose ardent conservatism may come closest to the religious and social conservatism that prevails among this state’s Republicans, took a rare shot at a fellow GOP contender. In response to a question, he said he disagreed with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a potential candidate, that Republicans needed a “truce” on social issues to broaden the party’s appeal.

“Anybody that would suggest that,” Santorum said, “doesn’t understand what America is all about.”

The decisions by the party’s better-known contenders to skip the debate angered and embarrassed the state Republican Party, which cosponsored it with the Fox News Channel. Front-runner Mitt Romney called it too early to start debating, but his absence raised questions about whether he’ll downgrade his effort in a socially conservative Southern state where his Mormon religion cuts against him.

Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus inadvertently captured the awkwardness of the event when he attempted to defend the missing candidates.

“Quite frankly, I think Americans are sick and tired of two-year, knock-out, drag-out contests with a zillion debates and forums,” he said.