First GOP presidential debate: Was Pawlenty too 'Minnesota nice'?

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, considered a top-tier GOP candidate for president, didn't go after the absent Mitt Romney over health care during a GOP debate Thursday night in South Carolina, but he did condemn the Obama reform.

Richard Shiro/AP
Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, speaks to a gathering of Tea Party supporters at the Hyatt Regency in Greenville, S.C., on Thursday, May 5. A handful of Republican hopefuls were in Greenville Thursday for the first GOP debate of the 2012 presidential race.
Charlie Neibergall/AP
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks to local residents during a breakfast meeting at a Pizza Ranch restaurant, on Tuesday, May 3, in Ames, Iowa.

It had the feel of a spring training game – a familiar face or two, plus some new talent just hoping to get noticed. Most of the heavy hitters weren’t even there.

Still, the first Republican debate of the 2012 presidential cycle, sponsored by Fox News and held in Greenville, S.C., had its revealing moments. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the only candidate among the five considered to have top-tier potential, faced the highest stakes as he seeks to build name recognition. But when given the opportunity to attack a top rival for the GOP nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, on one of his biggest vulnerabilities – a state health-care reform that served as a model for President Obama’s – he demurred.

“Well, Governor Romney is not here to defend himself, and so I'm not going to pick on him or the position that he took in Massachusetts,” Mr. Pawlenty said, buffing his “Minnesota nice” credentials.

Pawlenty touted the approach he took on health care during his two terms as governor: “empower individuals and families to makes choices that are best for them,” and provide financial help to those who need it. He saved his most pungent language for Mr. Obama, arguing that his reform created a “top-down, government-run, centralized, limited-choice, limited-option system.”

True, the 2012 election will be a referendum on Obama, but to rise to the top of the GOP heap, one has to beat the other Republicans. Thus far Pawlenty is polling in low single digits, but it’s early.

When will we know who's in?

Aside from Romney, other likely or possible contenders who were MIA included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, billionaire Donald Trump, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Mr. Gingrich is expected to announce his exploratory committee next week. Governor Daniels is expected to make a decision by the end of May. Representative Bachmann has said she’ll decide by July. Mr. Trump will let us know by early June. Mr. Huntsman also appears poised for an announcement soon.

Two other potential candidates, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, both have longer time horizons – Mr. Huckabee, because he’s already polling at or near the top among GOP voters, and Ms. Palin, because she has near-universal name ID and proven fundraising skill.

For the other four men on stage Thursday night at the Peace Center in Greenville, it was a rare, and free, opportunity to reach a national audience. In an accident of timing, taking place just days after the dramatic US killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the debate was dominated initially by discussion of foreign policy. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was asked about his assertion Monday that Obama has made America’s enemies “less fearful and less respectful of us.”

Santorum on foreign policy

Mr. Santorum brushed off Obama’s successful mission to kill bin Laden as a continuation of President Bush’s policies.

“He's done right by keeping Gitmo open,” Santorum said, referring to Guantánamo Bay prison camp. “He's done right by finishing the job in Iraq. He has done right by trying to win in Afghanistan. Those were existing policies that were in place.”

“The decision he made with Osama bin Laden was a tactical decision. It wasn't a strategic decision. The strategic decision was made already by President Bush to go after him.”

On the issues that have come up under Obama’s watch – including Egypt, Syria, and Iran – “he’s gotten it wrong strategically every single time,” Santorum said.

The Pennsylvania Republican, who lost badly in his reelection bid in 2006, is best known for his social conservatism, chiefly on abortion and gay rights. When asked if he would soften his positions to appeal to a wider electorate, he said no, in so many words.

“Those founding concepts [in the Declaration of Independence], what transformed the world in this United States of America, was a belief in family, a belief in life, and a belief in the dignity of every person,” Santorum said. “If we abandon that, we have given up on America.”

Cain on merits of elective office experience

Former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain, the only African-American on stage, provided some of the punchiest lines of the night.

On gasoline prices: “If the world market believed that we were serious about energy independence and we were going to utilize all of our existing resources, the speculators would stop speculating up and they'd speculate down until we get our own oil out of the ground.”

On his lack of elective office: “I ask people, most of the people that are in elected office in Washington, D.C. they have held public office before, how's that working for you? We have a mess. How about sending a problem-solver to the White House?”

Johnson on 'war on drugs'

The other two men on stage – Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson – both espouse a libertarian brand of Republicanism, which prescribes a minimal role for the federal government and free choice in personal behavior.

Both men, for example, oppose the government’s punitive approach to drugs. If he’s known at all, Mr. Johnson is best known for supporting legalization of marijuana and in general for opposing the “war on drugs.” His danger, as a long-shot presidential contender, is that he becomes known as the “pot candidate.” So when asked about marijuana, he broadened his response to make it an economic issue.

“I would hope that people, when it comes to the drug issue, looking at me, would look at what I did as governor of New Mexico, which was, everything was a cost-benefit analysis,” Johnson said.

Half of what the nation spends on law enforcement, courts, and prisons is drug-related, he said. “And to what end? We're arresting 1.8 million people a year in this country. We now have 2.3 million people behind bars in this country. We have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world.”

Ninety percent of America’s drug problem is prohibition-related, not use-related, he continued. “That's not to discount the problems with use and abuse. But that ought to be the focus.”

Paul on personal behavior and free choice

Representative Paul is perhaps best known for his proposal to eliminate the Federal Reserve system, but in the debate, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace also drew him out on the drug issue. Mr. Wallace noted that Paul has said that marijuana, cocaine, and even heroin should be legal if states want to permit it. Same with prostitution and gay marriage.

After a peroration on the First Amendment, Paul said: “You know, it's amazing that we want freedom to pick the future, you know, our future in a spiritual way but not when it comes to our personal habits.”

So, asked Mr. Wallace, “are you suggesting that heroin and prostitution are an exercise of liberty?”

“Well, you know, I probably never used those words....,” Paul said. “But yes, in essence, if I leave it to the states, it's going to be up to the states. Up until this past century, you know, for over 100 years, they were legal.”

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