First Republican Presidential Debate Pulled Off Course, But Pawlenty Emerges Relatively Unscathed

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- It may have been the moment when former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson extended his riff about how his reality TV show would be different from Sarah Palin’s “crawling on her hands and knees up the ice floe in Alaska.”

Or perhaps it was when Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) explained why not everyone would use heroin if it were legalized.

Either way, the Libertarian-minded iconoclasts who bookended the stage here Thursday night at the first Republican presidential primary debate provided plenty of highlights and some substance, but also took the forum wildly off track at times.

The result: South Carolinians already a bit on edge about the lack of top-tier GOP names at their debate got a little hotter under the collar.

“I’m not going to comment on that,” Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) said when asked about Paul’s heroin comments. “Unbelievable that they even came out in this debate.”

“The nation is $14 trillion in debt,” Duncan told HuffPost after the debate. “We’ve got a lot of other problems that we need to focus on, stop the fiscal insanity in this country. I think we’ve got a lot of work to do. The candidates who talked about that were on message. The candidates that got off of that were not on message.”

“If I had had to advise them I would say get back to the issues that are at hand: American energy independence, the rising prices at the pump, and our nation’s national debt,” he added.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) blanched at talk by Johnson of legalized abortion and by Paul of allowing gays to marry.

“I disagreed with the idea that there should be any taxpayer funded abortions, or the federal government redefining marriage,” DeMint said. “I wasn’t quite sure if I was hearing that or not.”

Much of the debate, hosted by Fox News, understandably focused on foreign policy, given the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden earlier this week. A number of questions also concerned social and religious issues.

But the candidates spent little time discussing America's sustained high unemployment rate or what to do about creating more jobs. Joblessness was only tangentially connected to a few questions about tax policy, organized labor and the national debt.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was even asked whether he believes in creationism, which aides said afterward they had not anticipated.

Pawlenty entered the night with the risk of being dragged down into second-tier or novelty issues by his opponents, and while he tried to stay above the fray, he faced tough questions about his past statements supporting cap and trade and about his management of Minnesota’s budget, which left the state with a projected $6 billion deficit over the next two years.

When Fox News’ Chris Wallace introduced a clip of a commercial where Pawlenty called for the government to “cap greenhouse gas pollution now,” the former governor exclaimed amiably, “Do we have to?”

Yet other Republicans gave Pawlenty some credit for saying forthrightly that he messed up: “It was wrong, it was a mistake, and I’m sorry,” he said in response to his cap and trade flip-flop.

Some party members see this as a clear contrast to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s refusal to admit making a mistake in passing universal health coverage in his state. “For him to man up and say he made a mistake showed tremendous courage on his part,” Duncan said.

In a somewhat surprising turn of events, however, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain emerged from the first debate with the highest rating from Fox News' focus group.

“I have never had this kind of reaction until tonight. Something very special happened this evening,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, after the 29-person group unanimously concluded that Cain had won. Only one person in the group began the night supporting Cain.

Chip Felkel, a local Republican consultant who worked with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour until Barbour’s decision not to run, called Cain's performance “impressive” and added that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum “did himself well.”

Of Pawlenty, Felkel said that “while he probably showed the most in terms of broadest appeal of those on stage, [he] looked a tad too prepped.”

In the end, Pawlenty emerged in essentially the same condition he entered the night: slowly ambling along, the candidate with the least flaws in a primary that so far is full of other hopefuls with plenty of baggage.