by Faiz Shakir, Benjamin Armbruster, Zaid Jilani, Alex Seitz-Wald, Tanya Somanader, and Travis Waldron

The race for the Republican Party’

The LightWeights Debate

s 2012 presidential nomination officially kicked off last night with a Fox News-sponsored debate in Greenville, SC. Before the debate even began, however, the national media largely focused more on who wasn’t there than who was. With the exception of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the GOP’s top-tier candidates — or at least the candidates perceived to be in the top-tier — were absent.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has emerged as an early front-runner in the primaries, declined to participate. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour decided last week not to run. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich hasn’t yet jumped into the race, though he is expected to do so soon. And other potential candidates — like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin — have yet to make up their minds regarding the race. The result was an event that will likely draw interest mainly from those in Washing ton political circles, organizations seeking to shape the GOP’s agenda heading into the race, and the political media, but will go largely unnoticed by most Americans.

The fact that two of the most revered organizations in the mainstream media didn’t even bother to give the debate their full attention only increases that possibility, as the Associated Press and Reuters both declined to cover the event, citing Fox News’ overreaching restrictions regarding photography during the debate. Nonetheless, the debate went on, with or without whomever may eventually become the GOP nominee.

FRINGE EVENT:  Aside from Pawlenty, who criticized other candidates for failing to show, the debate started as a spectacle of the GOP’s extreme right wing, featuring representatives of nearly every position currently on the right wing’s radar. Pizza magnate Herman Cain, notable for his infamous charge that he wouldn’t hire a Muslim to serve in his cabinet, was there.

So was former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a vehement social conservative who has recently made news for borrowing his campaign slogan from a gay, pro-labor poet and criticizing President Obama for not  defending American freedom . Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a libertarian who believes America’s race problems no longer exist because we have a black president, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the famous anti-tax advocate who thinks virtually every federal government program is unconstitutional and would like to return to the gold standard, rounded out the field. But it wasn’t just the candidates who were extreme.

The official pre-debate event attended by most of the participants was sponsored in part by the John Birch Society, a radical antigovernment group that has been in exile from American politics for decades and once attacked President Eisenhower for being a “communist infiltrator.” Speakers at that event stood in front of a giant banner bearing the name of the Oath Keepers, another antigovernment group that, during the 2008 presidential primaries, compared Hillary Clinton to Adolf Hitler and preached that Democrats would turn America into a police state that executed all resisters. Former Gov. Buddy Roemer, who is running a campaign based on attacking the role of big money in American politics, was not invited to the debate.

THE MISSING TOPIC:  The debate lasted about 90 minutes, and given the major news events of the last week, it focused primarily on foreign policy. The candidates provided varying positions on Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and other foreign policy topics, including torture — which three of the five said they’d support as president. But specifics on the economy, the one topic currently weighing heavily on the minds of millions of Americans, were mysteriously absent for most of the debate.

For the most part, the candidates glossed over their economic positions. Paul and Johnson, the libertarian candidates, advocated for market-based solutions. Cain and Pawlenty mentioned common-sense solutions. Paul hit President Obama for his lack of management experience outside politics, a familiar Republican attack. But the debate was largely devoid of any specifics on what the candidates would do to jumpstart the economy and put Americans back to work. The majority of the economic talk came during a lightning round near the end, and even then it focused primarily on why Obama was beatable, with Paul and Johnson focusing on the national debt and Pawlenty and Cain hitting him on gas prices . There were other moments that focused on secondary economic issues — energy independence, labor relations, Pawlenty’s budgets, and the GOP budget’s Medicare overhaul — but the debate’s tone on the economy was struck by Santorum. Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked Santorum a question about Daniels, a former budget director under President Bush, and Daniels’ repeated calls for a truce on social issues in order to focus fully on the economy.

Santorum didn’t hesitate to throw Daniels under the bus, saying that any candidate who would diminish the role of social issues in a Republican primary “doesn’t understand what America” is about — a claim that earned him raucous cheers from the crowd. With Americans worried about the economy, it became clear in this debate that the GOP isn’t quite ready to set aside its pet social issues in order to offer economic alternatives.

RAISING CAIN:  The general consensus post-debate was that former pizza CEO Herman Cain, who has thus far garnered little support, was the clear winner. A focus group led by conservative pollster Frank Luntz voted overwhelmingly in favor of Cain, and conservative blogs were roundly impressed. New York Times polling guru Nate Silver noted Cain’s immediate jump on Intrade, a presidential predictor that offers odds on the primaries.

Cain’s share on Intrade was just 0.3 percent before the debate. Immediately after, it jumped to 1.5 percent, and by this morning, he had reached 2 percent. Pawlenty, viewed as the front-runner among the debate’s participants, received  mixed reviews . While RedState considered his performance solid, others weren’t so impressed. The Luntz focus group placed him in a tie for third, behind Cain and Santorum, criticizing him for dodging too many questions. With Cain and Santorum receiving high marks, the right’s reaction only highlighted the debates fringe qualities.

Cain has taken numerous fringe positions since jumping into the race, declaring his distaste for Muslims and joining real estate mogul Donald Trump (who also skipped the debate) as a birther. Santorum’s bump from the focus group came mainly from on e answer, in which he was harshly critical of Obamacare and claimed that health reform was robbing Americans of essential freedoms. Indeed, the focus group wasn’t exactly representative of mainstream voters — when asked if Obama had “socialist tendencies,” it voted nearly 


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