On a day when President Barack Obama sucked the oxygen out of the news cycle with his visit to New York's Ground Zero, when marquee names like Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney were no-shows, and even the Associated Press was boycotting over lack of access for its photographers, the first 2012 GOP presidential primary debate — hosted by the South Carolina Republican Party — managed to achieve liftoff as planned.
Described by the Daily Beast's Mark Latimer as a "whatever-the-opposite-of-thriller-is," the event was clearly lacking star power. But while former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty wound up being the only "mainstream" candidate on the stage, the debate set the table for the coming political season — making clear that Republicans will be going after Obama on any and all issues, including foreign policy, even after this week's killing of Osama bin Laden. Herman Cain — the only African American in the field — summed it up, saying, "One good decision doth not a presidency make."
And yes, he did say "doth."
Cain mostly served up predictable talking points. But unlike the meandering Ron Paul, Cain's a seasoned talk radio host, and he connected with lines like "Government doesn't create jobs; business creates jobs." And Republicans liked what they heard.
Just minutes after the debate ended, an on-air focus group run by Fox News pollster Frank Luntz declared, almost unanimously, that Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO, was the debate's winner. Their reaction: "He's a problem solver. He gives the problem, he gives the solution, and that just seems to be a breath of fresh air for Washington."
Here's how the rest of the field stacked up …
If you had to concoct the stereotypical Republican candidate in a science lab, you might come up with a guy like Rick Santorum. Known more for his conservative social views than for deficit-cutting Tea Party passion, the former Pennsylvania senator — complete with a tight smile and Brylcreemed hair — stood in for the old-school conservative faithful. He vowed to stop health care reform that "takes over people's lives," and won applause when he said that on issues like gay marriage and the right to choose — he's against both — "If we abandon that, we have given up on America."
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson — who's climbed Mount Everest and freely acknowledges marijuana use — was there for the "legalize it" wing of the libertarian movement and spent his time fending off jokes from Fox News' Bret Baier, complaining at one point that "there's been like nine questions for these guys and none for me" (a not-so-libertarian response to the free marketplace of ideas). He's got no shot in this race, but he helped make Ron Paul — also a long shot — look mainstream by comparison.
As the Libertarian Party's 1988 presidential nominee and an 11-term GOP congressman, Paul reps the anti-Fed/anti-interventionist "sound money" and paleocon wings of the libertarian movement. He dutifully bashed deficit spending while defending gay marriage, saying, "I have my standards, but my standards shouldn't be imposed on others." A practicing obstetrician in his 70s, Paul capped his night with a rant about the war on drugs that got a laugh from the crowd when he asked, "How many people would use heroin if it was legal?"
Pawlenty was the only candidate onstage that the Washington Post's George Will gives any "plausible" chance to win. He sold himself as the only candidate prepared to make the long slog toward not only getting nominated, but also winning the general election. On that score he did pretty well, giving Obama credit for getting bin Laden, then slamming the president on economic policies that he called "disastrous." And he went ahead and hung a lantern on his own Achilles' heel, saying "I made a mistake" for his past support of cap-and-trade legislation — an issue that's a total loser among national Republicans.
But if he'd hoped to generate any sort of buzz for himself, he'll have to wait. Which brings us back to Cain.
When Fox's Chris Wallace asked Cain — who has never held elective office — why he thought he had any shot at the nomination, Cain was ready. He calmly noted that the folks currently in charge of government already have experience and then slyly queried, "How's that working out for you?"
It was the line of the night, and though it probably won't take Cain all the way to the nomination, it just might carry him for the rest of the debates.
"Plausible" candidates, beware.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.