GREENVILLE, S.C. — America's voters were supposed to be introduced Thursday for the first time to the Republican party's 2012 presidential candidates — but they only met five hopefuls who are far down in state and national polls.
And they didn't hear many surprises. The potential candidates generally agreed they wanted lower taxes, President Barack Obama's foreign policy wasn't tough enough — days after his direct orders resulted in the death of the world's most wanted terrorist — and his health care plan needs to be stopped.
The party's better-known figures, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Donald Trump, and others, stayed away from this first debate of the presidential campaign. No one participating Thursday polled more than 2.5 percent in the last month's Winthrop Poll, which measures state GOP voters' sentiment.
It all made for an awkward night, a night that probably didn't do much to change the still hard-to-define Republican race.
"Without the big players here, it's difficult to call this a debate," said Rick Beltram, the former Spartanburg County GOP chairman.
National Republican chairman Reince Priebus tried to put a more pleasant face on the proceedings. "It's going to be the first of many debates," he said.
Thursday's participants included former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and businessman Herman Cain.
South Carolina is traditionally the South's first presidential primary test, and has in recent elections often made or broken candidates. The state GOP is dominated by hard-line conservatives — a few hours before the debate, at a nearby hotel, several hundred tea party loyalists heard Republican Gov. Nikki Haley urge them to "ask the tough questions."
But they didn't get answers from some big names, who avoided the kind of gaffes and attacks from lesser-known candidates that could badly wound their still-nascent fundraising and organizing efforts. Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades explained his boss' absence from the debate: "It's still early, the field is too unsettled and he's not yet an announced candidate."
The debate, broadcast live on Fox News, had a few defining moments.
Pawlenty, considered the most serious contender on the stage, attempted to look presidential, describing his frequent trips to the Middle East, saying he understood the mindset of mass-murdering terrorists. He said he'd support "enhanced" interrogation techniques, which some consider torture, "under limited circumstances."
He described himself as a working-class guy from a Minnesota meatpacking town who knows the value of low taxes. "I saw the face of job loss and economic worry . . . I've seen this and I've lived it," Pawlenty said. And he saw the need to "do those things that are going to make it more likely jobs are going to grow."
But a big crack emerged that could haunt Pawlenty. In 2007, he sought tough methods for reducing greenhouse gases through a cap and trade system, the kind of position conservatives dislike.
Pawlenty said Thursday he was wrong. "We did consider and sign into law legislation in Minnesota that would study cap and trade," he said, but concluded "it's really a bad idea.
"I'm looking the American people in the eye and saying I made a mistake," he said.
Another bit of drama came from the other four participants, each of whom aimed to gain momentum from an audience packed with hard-core conservatives and libertarians.
Paul, a libertarian favorite who ran in 2008, got big cheers when he called for an end to American involvement in Afghanistan. Wouldn't Osama bin Laden be alive today if the U.S. had pulled out earlier? No, Paul said, "He wasn't caught in Afghanistan."
Johnson urged abolishing the corporate tax, saying it would create "literally tens of millions of jobs overnight." Cain criticized American foreign policy. "We need a real clear national security strategy with every nation on the planet, friend or foe," he said, citing U.S. policy in Libya and Syria.
The 2010 health care overhaul is always a favorite conservative target, and it took more hits Thursday. "What Obamacare does is shift this fundamental belief of our founders that our country was created to make sure people are free," said Santorum, since the law will eventually require virtually everyone to obtain health care coverage.
"To me it's a game changer," he said. "It has to be stopped."
But in a week when Obama's approval rating spiked, thanks to the killing of bin Laden, it would seem even harder for Santorum and the others to be remembered.
"Gasoline prices are going to continue to go up . . . he is vulnerable in many ways," Cain said. The Winthrop poll has him tied with Pawlenty, each with support from 1.7 percent of the state's Republicans. They're in a tie for 11th place among potential GOP candidates.
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