2012 race starts with a “Meh”

Image courtesy Today's News NJ

The South Carolina GOP Debate, where "Who's who" meets "Who's that?"

As far as JV games go, it was pretty typical. The first debate in the 2012 race for the White House, hosted by the South Carolina Republican Party, featured a couple of guys who looked like they were ready to elevate themselves to varsity status, one who seemed comfortable where he is, and one dude who might enjoy finding another extracurricular activity…art or music, maybe?

The debate, hosted live by Fox News, was watched by a Frank Luntz focus group. That group scored former radio talk show host/pizza chain CEO Herman Cain the runaway winner. I didn’t see it quite like that. Here’s my scorecard from the less-than-thrilling evening.

1. Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) – T-Paw needed a good night, and he got one. This was his chance to prove he was ready to play on the same court with the big boys, to shed the “nice, but boring” image. He’s still not the most exciting guy on the dais, but he did have a little more fire than normal. He painted himself as well-traveled and in touch with the problems and, most importantly, didn’t dodge the questions. The most telling exchange came when he was asked about changing his position on “cap-and-trade.” He had this to say:

What i concluded subsequently is it is really a bad idea. Not in the last six months. I sent a letter congress I think about two years ago. And other times have said, I was wrong, I was a mistake and I’m sorry. It is ham fisted, it is going to be harmful to the economy.

Pawlenty admitted the mistake and showed how, with new information, he changed course. That’s a respectable stand that most politicians won’t make, because admitting you made a mistake is a fantastic way to not get re-elected. The audience seemed cool with it, though. T-Paw was also willing to give props to Pres. Obama on getting bin Laden, something that has been difficult for Republicans to do.

Let’s be frank…T-Paw didn’t create a lot of buzz for himself with this performance, but I think it’s the kind of consistent performance that could help him in the long run.

2. Herman Cain (GA) – This man captured the buzz in a way Pawlenty can only dream of. Cain is a big presence in any room, with a stern glare and booming voice. He is well polished, too, thanks in part to the fact he hosted his own talk radio show in Atlanta (it ended in February of this year). The buzz came with plenty of buzzwords to surround his performance. The Luntz Bunch said things like “a breath of fresh air,” “common sense,” and “clear and concise.”

But while I put Cain second in performance, I’m still not sold on his staying power. Most of his bullet-point answers came with three points – and as S.E. Cupp pointed out hilariously, he only got to three points of a four-point answer – and while he’s good with a quip, it’s not clear yet (because he’s so new on the scene) if there’s any depth behind them. As one member of the Luntz Bunch described him, “Talking points, no real solutions.”

This is not to say Cain can’t win. I’m only pointing out that for a man who has never run a successful political campaign, the 18-month run-up to November 2012 is going to present a lot of challenges. His ability to solve those challenges will prove if he’s capable of winning the nomination.

3. Rep. Ron Paul (TX) – It was a very Ron Paul-ian performance by the Texas Libertarian. He brought the house down with his discussion of the legalization of heroin and prostitution, a stance that seemed to irk the South Carolina GOP (unfortunately I’ve lost the link to that story). Paul drew several rounds of applause, including for advocating for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

Paul is an interesting voice in the GOP race. He helps drive the discussion in ways that are important if uncomfortable for the Republicans. This current batch of GOPers advocate for getting government out of the way and out of our personal lives, but they only seem to mean it when it comes to the financials. Paul is willing to take it much farther, advocating for not only heroin and hookers, but also for allowing gays and lesbians to marry. If the Republicans hope to snare independents and moderates who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, Paul is the man who can help them do it. Paul’s views are seen by many as eccentric and “out there,” leaving him unlikely to win. But maybe he doesn’t have to. Maybe it’s enough to drive the debate in different directions.

4. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) – Santorum is, as The Root contributor David Swerdlick says, what a GOP candidate would look like if you had to “concoct the stereotypical Republican candidate in a science lab.” T-Paw gets the knock for being boring only because of the distaste Santorum’s conservative social views have stirred up (if you have a really, really strong stomach, Google the word “Santorum” to see the sexual neologism created after he went on record comparing homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia). Santorum was as plastic as can be expected in the SC GOP debate, landing no wild haymakers but drawing nice rounds of applause for being, well, Rick Santorum. The JV game suits Santorum well. He’s not ready for the varsity game, though.

5. Gov. Gary Johnson (NM) – Poor Gary. He seems like a nice enough guy, but he was clearly out of his comfort zone in this debate. His elbows were pinned to his ribs and his hands spent most of the night nervously rubbing against things. Those tics made it hard for me to hear his message, which I understand is the “far out” right (he’s made no secrets of marijuana use). The only other thing I’ll remember about Johnson is line, delivered early on in the proceedings:

“Hey, there’s been like nine questions for these guys and none for me.”

Sorry, Gary. You weren’t doing much with the opportunities anyway.

The next chance for the Republican field to create some Cain-esque buzz – and for Cain to keep it rolling – is just about a month away. CNN and WMUR are co-sponsoring a debate June 13. It will air at 7 p.m. (Central) on CNN.