- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2011

President Obama’s approval ratings have risen in recent days, but he was still a punching bag Thursday night for the Republican contenders who squared off in the nation’s first official 2012 presidential debate.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty congratulated the president on his handling of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, but “that moment is not the sum total of American foreign policy” under Mr. Obama, he said.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said the president has made the wrong call on every strategic foreign policy decision the administration has faced, including Iran, “where he chose to back the mullahs instead of the protesters.”

Mr. Pawlenty, Mr. Santorum, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson all said they would release the photo of the body of bin Laden. Only former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain said he would not.

Mr. Paul set himself apart from the other contenders several times throughout the evening, drawing cheers from the crowd with his libertarian leanings. He drew enthusiastic cheers from the crowd
several times in the 90-minute debate, perhaps most notably when he stoutly defend the legalization of heroin and prostitution as matters of principle.

“Secret military prisons aren’t characteristic of a freedom-loving people,” he said. “We don’t need secret prisons.”

He said the death of bin Laden should prompt a reassessment that would get the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

On gas prices, Mr. Cain ripped into the Obama administration. “We have the resources we need in this country right now to establish energy independence,” he said. “Get our own oil out of the ground.”

The businessman was asked if his lack of political experience was a negative, drew big cheers with his defiant replay: “Most [candidates who run] have held public office before. How’s that working out fo you?”

According to a Fox News Channel focus group of 29 South Carolina voters gathered by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, the runaway winner of the debate was Mr. Cain. When he asked the audience who they backed, the vast majority immediately shot their hands up when Mr. Cain, the first of the
candidates alphabetically, was mentioned. Mr. Luntz never went on the other candidates. Only one person said he went into the debate backing Mr. Cain.

“I have never heard this kind of reaction until tonight … something very special happened this evening,” Mr. Luntz said.

Among the quick comments the unidentified voters made about Mr. Cain were “he answered the questions most directly,” “honest, does not talk like a politician,” and “he can attack Obama well.”

Mr. Pawlenty, the one contender on the stage whom establishment Republicans in Washington see as a plausible nominee, seemed determined to distinguish himself with more forceful criticisms of
the Obama health care plan and the administration’s handling of the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East.

Mr. Pawlenty said he supports enhanced interrogation techniques — including waterboarding — “in certain circumstances.”

“We need to do everything we can, within our value systems and our legal structures to protect Americans,” he said, drawing his loudest applause of the night.

Mr. Santorum, who drew several questions on his conservative stands on social issues, said he’s not backing down, dismissing a citation of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ suggestion last year that social
conservatives agree to a “truce.”

“I don’t think that anyone who would suggest that we declare a truce on the moral issues doesn’t understand what America is about,” he said.

Mr. Johnson, who at one point complained that the Fox News questioners weren’t asking him as many questions as the other contenders, struggled a bit when asked about his admitted past use of

He said he, like Mr. Paul, supports limited legalization of the drug.

“Control it, regulate it,” he said.

The debate drew more attention for who did not attend than for who did. The GOP’s front-runner in most polls, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and every other would-be candidate currently polling in double digits is skipping the South Carolina event, including billionaire Donald Trump and former governors Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin.

Those four candidates each garner between 12 and 18 percent in this week’s Quinnipiac University poll of likely Republican voters, but no one on the stage Thursday scored more than 5 percent in that survey.

Mr. Pawlenty earlier Thursday criticized those in the field who chose to skip the debate, writing in the Daily Caller, a political website, that “Some candidates are skipping tonight’s Republican debate in
South Carolina because they believe it’s ‘too soon’ to begin the presidential campaign against Barack Obama.”

“I only hope that it’s not too late,” he wrote.

The consensus in Mr. Luntz’s focus group was that the potential candidates who did show had disrespected the voters of South Carolina. None of the would-be Republican contenders have officially declared their candidacy — to do so would require the campaigns to adhere to
much stricter federal rules regarding fund-raising — but the five hopefuls on hand in South Carolina have been aggressively campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Others potential candidates who skipped the debate, sponsored by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party, include Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Jon Huntsman, former U.S. ambassador to China. Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer had planned on participating, but failed to meet the minimum requirements set out by the debate organizers.

• David Eldridge can be reached at deldridge@washingtontimes.com.

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