A Sparse Republican Debate Over Heroin, Other Candidates

There were some awkward moments, but the crowd loved at least one of them

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The Fox News hosts asked interesting, tough questions during the first Republican presidential primary debate Thursday night, but they couldn't make up for the fact that those answering the questions aren't the GOP's brightest stars. That showed near the end of the debate, when the candidates who showed up--Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, and Gary Johnson--were asked about the candidates who didn't. "I love the Huck," Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota, awkwardly said about absentee maybe-candidate Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas.

With the strongest candidates MIA, the lesser-known guys were able to shine or, like Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, be weird. He explained that if he had a reality show, it would "spread this whole notion of physical activity ... this notion that we should all live in the present." His show would not be like Palin's, in which she was on her "hands and knees" climbing an ice wall, he said. Post-debate, Johnson confessed, "I didn't mean to say that."

The candidates spent the first 15 minutes of the debate talking about foreign policy in the wake of Osama bin Laden's killing. Echoing a line from Sarah Palin, Santorum, a former Senator from Pennsylvania, attacked Obama for being wimpy, saying, "We need a president out front saying you either cooperate with us, or there will be consequences, and one of the consequences will be aid." Everything Obama did right on national security, he said, was a continuation of policies started by George W. Bush. But Paul, the Libertarian darling, and Johnson both called for an immediate end to the war in Afghanistan--with Paul getting cheers when asked if we'd have caught bin Laden if we'd pulled out of Afghanistan. Of course, Paul said. Bin Laden wasn't even in Afghanistan.

Though the South Carolina audience was instructed to limit applause, the crowd interrupted frequently. The cheers came at times you wouldn't always expect from a Southern audience--like when Ron Paul said he thought that dabbling in heroin and prostitution could be an exercise of liberty. Other popular lines were more predictable, such as Santorum's full-throated defense of social conservatism which attacked the absent Indiana governor Mitch Daniels' call for a "truce" on social issues. Pawlenty got a lot of applause for mentioning a dispute between Boeing and unions. He emphasized his working-class roots, saying he'd been in a union in the past and many of his family members were in unions. Republicans "are not anti-union," he said, they're "pro-job."

Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza and GOP wild card , said he'd abolish the income tax in favor of a 23 percent sales tax; when told economists had said such a tax would disproportionally hurt the middle class, Cain replied, "You're dead wrong." Cain was pretty dismissive of expertise in general--sure, he's never held elected office before, but Washington is populated by incumbents. "How's that working out for you?" he asked. Though tweeters and live-bloggers weren't too impressed with Cain's performance, Fox's focus group of 29 South Carolina Republicans sure were. None of them supported Cain before the debate, but more than half said they did afterward.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.