GREENVILLE, S.C.—The first debate between the candidates who would lead their party in 2012 led Rep. Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina , to ponder an existential question: So what's the point of debates, exactly?
"The notion that we can solve what ails our country and our economy in 60 seconds is driven by television," he said disdainfully, hobnobbing in the spin room after the debate, which included former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and businessman Herman Cain. "What we really ought to have is Paul Ryan, with whoever the best economist who has the contrary viewpoint is, and a thorough discussion."
That didn't happen last night. Instead there was 90 minutes of sparring about weighty topics like economy and the capture of Osama bin Laden, and sparring about less weighty topics like legal heroin and Rick Santorum's 2005 book It Takes a Family. The consensus going in was that the lack of frontrunners in the room would minimize the importance of the event. The consensus going out was that the lack of frontrunners in the room minimized the importance of the event—and that Ron Paul's supporters are really loud.
From the start of the day, the inaugural debate—sponsored by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party—didn't feel like an event that was gripping the city of Greenville, much less the nation. In the early afternoon, as a National Day of Prayer rally ended on a downtown plaza, a professional activist named Bob Kunst arrived, sat on a park bench, and held up one of his signs: "OBAMA, Show Us Osama's Photo." He'd driven up from Miami to protest "gutless" Republicans, he said, and it turned out that he was one of very few protesters who'd make the trip. As he sat, he engaged a Greenville local in a dialogue about what should be done with the corpse of the late terrorist.
"I'd put him in a glass box and display him at ground zero in New York," said the Greenville resident, pausing from his lunch.
"What we should do," said Kunst, "is cover him in pig oil and march him into a gathering of the victims' families, and see what they do."
This was not the most serious conversation ever conducted about Bin Laden's fate, but in some way it jibed with the mood of the event. The very first question to the candidates was about Bin Laden's death; the first yes-or-no question was whether they'd want to release the military's photo of a bullet-riddled corpse. All of the candidates save for Cain raised their hands, indicating that they would. Asked about the details of the raid, they found ways to bend the question toward their own theories of what was learned and how terror could be thwarted.
"If it turns out that many of the techniques he criticized during the campaign led to Osama Bin Laden being captured or killed," said Pawlenty, "he ought to explain that."
"If you look at the decision to get Bin Laden," said Santorum, "it was a tactical decision, not a strategic decision. The strategic decision was made by President Bush."
Pawlenty's take was factually murky; Santorum's take was factual nonsense, compounded when he suggested that Obama had only continued George W. Bush's policies in Afghanistan. If the goal of these soundbites was to confirm a Republican voter's impression of the Obama administration as weak and wrongfooted, it was neatly done.
After this, the debate did Republicans a little less good. The mission of the GOP at the moment is to grind down Barack Obama's agenda, cut spending, convince voters they can create jobs, and avoid other issues like they're doused in insect pheromones. That last thing was hard to do in Greenville, because most of the party's potential, orthodox candidates skipped out on it. (Buddy Roemer, the former congressman and governor of Louisiana *, forked over a $25,000 filing fee but was excluded on the grounds that no one's met a voter who actually supports him.) Paul and Johnson, the two libertarians in the race, made up 40 percent of the show and got something like 30 percent of the questions. The Fox News moderators, with stacks of research to draw on, raced across every issue that could possibly interest Republicans.
No one was particularly happy about this. Every candidate got at least one question about a possible political vulnerability, which was odd considering the pre-debate wisdom that only one of the candidates—Pawlenty—had the media and donor credibility to make it to the nomination. He had to become a credible not-Romney candidate, and do it in a state where Romney drastically underperformed in 2008. He did so, by making no huge mistakes, and by being the first candidate to wade into the state's dispute with the National Labor Relations Board over unionization. If he had no memorable lines, he might have been saving those for the high-stakes debate.
It became clear very quickly that all the non-Pawlenty candidates didn't have much at stake. Paul, who starts the race with the biggest grassroots fundraising network, good poll numbers, and no pundit thinking he can win, veered between protecting his vulnerabilities and screwing with the moderators. He said Israel "didn't need us telling it what to do," meant to be a calming line for conservatives who fear his isolationism. He was also so bemused by a question about drug legalization that he ended his answer with a wacky impression of a heroin user. And why shouldn't he be bemused? As he debated, a one-day moneybomb for his campaign was raising more than $1 million.
Johnson and Santorum arguably had more at stake. Both of their political careers initially ended in the aughts, and both have discovered that the only way to make the media pay attention to their ideas is to run for president. On Thursday, that worked for Santorum, who has spent much of his post-Senate career as a commentator for Fox News. It worked less well for Johnson, who was given to looping his answers back in on themselves, like unwieldy palindromes.
"With regard to unemployment benefits," said Johnson, answering a fairly easy question, "I'm in the camp that believes that we as individuals, you know—we need a bit of help. So government helps out. But at the point at which it runs out, that's when we really deal with the problems that we have. And as individuals, that's when we deal with those problems."
Johnson did better when he focused on the existential threat of government spending and debt—it's a problem, and we need to deal with it. Cain, the businessman and motivational speaker, just kept repeating that he had plans to solve problems, and the candidates with careers in politics didn't have plans. The thing about repeatedly saying you have a plan is that an audience believes it. Cain did well in a post-debate focus group conducted by Frank Luntz for Fox News because, to use some of their words, Cain was "articulate" and he "had plans."
The news of the focus group spread quickly. When the debate ended, he waltzed into the spin room, made himself known to the press, and attracted the second-largest crowd of any candidate. Pawlenty attracted more reporters, at first, but he left quickly. Johnson made do with one or two reporters at a time, and spent some time ruing the moments he'd let get away from him. When he was asked about what sort of reality show he'd want, and he said it wouldn't be like Sarah Palin "climbing on her hands and knees" to explore Alaska?
"I didn't mean to do that," he sighed. "That was probably the worst thing I said."
As the candidates talked, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., held court in another part of the room. He had a litmus test, he said—he would not endorse any candidate who didn't support a balanced budget amendment as part of an increase in the debt ceiling.
That struck me as a simple thing to ask for. Wouldn't it be easy for Republicans to commit to that, I asked, because the balanced budget amendment can't pass the Senate? Could they win him over with a pretty empty promise?
"It won't be as easy as they think," he said, "because hopefully some of us will go to the mat with Democrats on this, and actually stall the debt ceiling vote until we get a balanced budget. We'll see how many candidates stay with us."
A bit later, in the same part of the room, Trey Gowdy kept sketching his ideal world. It was a world in which debates were long and wonky and serious, not about quick solutions but real reckoning on spending. It was a world in which Paul Ryan was on the debate stage, running for president.
"I ask him to, every day," said Gowdy. "The answer's no."
Correction, May 6, 2011: This article originally said that Buddy Roemer is a former congressman and governor of Mississippi. He is from Louisiana. (Return to the corrected sentence.)