Greenville, S.C. —If nomination debates are about giving voters choice, last night’s was a success: The five candidates sure put a lot on the menu.
Appearing before a Palmetto State crowd were Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, and Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas). The event didn’t include some of the heavy hitters, which doesn’t help voters in the market for a frontrunner. But it probably widened the variety of ideas expressed.
In a sense, there was something for everyone — from support for waterboarding (Cain, Pawlenty, and Santorum), to support for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan (Paul and Johnson); from Cain’s passionate defense of the FairTax proposal, to Paul’s equally passionate defense of heroin legalization.
After the debate’s conclusion, about 100 journalists poured into the “spin room,” where candidates milled about while waiting for their turns with Sean Hannity at an impromptu Fox News studio. (I was unable to find Ron Paul after the debate and do not believe he took questions from the media.)
Having never run for office, Cain told reporters he’ll have to overcome a fundraising challenge. “A lot of people are reluctant, or they have been in the past, to invest in a candidate who has never run for office,” he said.
When asked about the African-American vote, Cain responded with an answer about the black vote — an intentional turn of phrase, he told NRO. “I consider myself an American, black conservative,” he said. “I was a black man before the terminology ‘African-American’ became popular, to be perfectly honest with you.”
Candidates tonight seemed reluctant to take direct swings at each other, and none more so than Johnson. “I ran two campaigns for governor where I didn’t mention my opponent in print, radio, or television,” he said, when asked who fared best at the debate. “I thought everybody presented really well.”
And the man who told viewers he has climbed the highest mountains on four continents confessed he gets a thrill out of campaigning as well. “I do believe that this is one of life’s great adventures,” Johnson said. “And here it is, we’re getting to talk about national and world public policy.”
The former governor, who is about a foot taller than he appears on TV, told reporters he feels good about his debate performance, but he acknowledged a challenge in name recognition. “We’re not starting at the same place as others who ran last time,” he said. “But we’re making good progress and we’re doing the retail politics of introducing ourselves to people, looking them in the eye, and making our case. And it’s working.”
Pawlenty passed on a chance to hit Mitt Romney during the debate, and told reporters he subscribes to Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment. “We’re all going to have to be a team when this is over, in the cause of getting our country back on track and defeating Barack Obama,” he said. “And so I’m going to have to try my best to not criticize other Republican candidates.”
Santorum clearly takes social values seriously. He told reporters that “laws teach” when they “reflect the collective morality of our people.”
“I always say freedom is not the freedom from, it’s the freedom for,” Santorum said. “It’s freedom to do what you ought to do. It’s freedom to do what you’re called to do, which is a freedom — within the Western civilization — to serve God, to take care of your neighbor, to provide for your family, to live a good and just and virtuous life. That’s what freedom really is.”
He’s emphasizing his national record — even the election in which he lost his Senate seat. “If you look at ’06, I didn’t flinch,” Santorum said. “You stand up for what you believe in, and sometimes you lose.”
DeMINT and HALEY
It’s clearly just the beginning of the nomination process, and politicians are hesitant to tip their hands too early.
South Carolina governor Nikki Haley told reporters she wants to hear more — especially about protecting right-to-work states — before she makes up her mind. “There’s no winner tonight. It’s too soon,” she said. “I think what we saw is, they touched the surface. What I’m going to wait for is the substance.”
Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) is also keeping his reaction to himself. “I was impressed with different aspects of all of them, so I’m not going to jump in any time,” he said. “I thought they all had some strengths and weaknesses.”
But there’s a make-or-break question for anyone seeking the blessing of the Tea Party kingmaker. “If I hear ‘Be adults, raise the debt ceiling,’” DeMint said, “that one’s off my list.”
— Kyle O. Peterson covered the 2010 Florida elections for National Review Online and currently resides in South Carolina.