Already? GOP Kicks Off Presidential Debates

May 6, 2011
Originally published on May 6, 2011 1:53 pm

The first debate of the 2012 presidential campaign began with introductions — Rep. Ron Paul of Texas; Herman Cain, former chairman and CEO of Godfather's Pizza; Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota; former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania; and Gary Johnson, businessman and former governor of New Mexico.

Not attending Thursday's Republican event in Greenville, S.C. were Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Mitch Daniels. Needless to say, the GOP field is still taking shape, but the show went on.

It was no surprise when the first question dealt with the big news of the week — Osama bin Laden. Pawlenty was asked about his statement of a few weeks ago that President Obama looks weak as a leader. He responded with congratulations for the president.

"He did a good job and I tip my hat to him in that moment," Pawlenty said. "But that moment is not the sum total of American foreign policy. He's made a number of decisions around the world that I don't agree with."

Paul, who has called for ending U.S. foreign aid, was asked if bin Laden might still be alive and at large if the U.S. had pulled out of Afghanistan years ago as he advocated.

"We went to Afghanistan to get him and he hasn't been there," Paul said. "Now that he's killed, boy it is a wonderful time for this country now to reassess [the U.S. presence in Afghanistan] and get the troops out of Afghanistan, and end that war that hasn't helped us and hasn't helped anybody in the Middle East."

Then came the economy and domestic issues, an area where all of those who were onstage see the president as being very vulnerable.

"One of the biggest problems we have with this country today is too much government intervention in trying to tell business what they do best," Cain said. "Government doesn't create jobs — business creates jobs."

And there was discussion of the debate within the Republican Party between those who think economic issues should dominate and those who insist the focus should be on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

"I think anybody who says we should call a truce on the moral issues doesn't understand what America is all about," Santorum said.

In any debate there is often one moment that stands out. Thursday night it involved Paul. He was questioned about the belief that prostitution, marijuana and heroin should be legalized.

"What you're inferring is that if we legalize heroin tomorrow everybody would use heroin," Paul said. "How many people would use heroin if it's legal? I bet nobody would use heroin or say, 'Oh yeah, I want heroin, I need the government to protect me so I need these laws.' "

There will be more debates. Expect more such moments — though with a larger field of participants — as eventually, last night's no-shows won't be able to opt out by saying it's too early.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer sitting in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Some of the biggest names in the Republican presidential field did not make last night's debate in South Carolina. The five candidates who did come to Greenville focused, among other things, on Osama bin Laden. Here's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA: The stage at the downtown auditorium was decked out in red, white and blue and in logos for Fox News, the sponsor of the event. First came the introductions.

Mr. BRETT BAIER (Moderator, Fox News): Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, who is...Herman Cain, former chairman and CEO of...Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who served...Rick Santorum, former U.S. representative...and Gary Johnson, business man and former two-time...

GONYEA: It was no surprise when the first question dealt with the big news of the week, Osama bin Laden. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty was asked about his statement of a few weeks back, that President Obama looks weak as a world leader. He responded with congratulations for the president, adding...

Governor TIM PAWLENTY (Republican, Minnesota): He did a good job and I tip my hat to him in that moment. But that moment is not the sum total of America's foreign policy. He's made a number of decisions relating to our security, here and around the world, that I don't agree with.

GONYEA: Then Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who has called for ending U.S. foreign aid, was asked if bin Laden might still be alive and at large if the U.S. had pulled out of Afghanistan years ago as he advocated.

Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): We went to Afghanistan to get him and he hasn't been there. Now that he's killed, boy it is a wonderful time for this country, now, to reassess it and get the troops out of Afghanistan and end that war that hasn't helped us and hasn't helped anybody in the Middle East.

GONYEA; Then came the economy and domestic issues. This is an area where all of those on stage see the president as being very vulnerable. Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, the former head of the Godfathers Pizza Chain, said this administration is bad for business.

Mr. HERMAN CAIN: One of the biggest problems we have with this country right now today, is too much government intervention in trying to tell businesses how to do what they do best. Government doesn't create jobs, businesses create jobs.

GONYEA: And there was discussion of the debate within the Republican Party between those who think economic issues should dominate and those who insist the focus should be on social issues, such as abortion and same sex marriage. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a social conservative, was uncompromising on this.

Senator RICK SANTORUM (Republican candidate, president): I think anybody that would suggest that we call a truce on the moral issues doesn't understand what America is all about. America is a...

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: In any debate, there's often one moment that stands out. Last night it involved Ron Paul. He was questioned about his belief that things like prostitution, marijuana and heroin should be legalized.

Rep. PAUL: What you're inferring is, you know what, if we legalize heroin tomorrow everybody's going to use heroin. How many people here would use heroin if it were legal. I bet nobody would put their hand - oh, yeah, I need the government to take care of me. I don't want to use heroin, so I need these laws.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: And there was this moment with former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who had earlier raised his hand to complain that he wasn't being asked any questions.

Mr. BAIER: Governor Johnson, if you had a reality TV show like Donald Trump does...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAIER...what would it be?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Former Governor GARY JOHNSON (Republican, New Mexico): Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Former Gov. JOHNSON: I'm stumped. I'm really stumped.

GONYEA: There will be more debates. Expect more such moments, though with a larger field of participants, as eventually last night's no-shows won't be able to opt out by simply saying it's too early.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Greenville, South Carolina.

INSKEEP: And the Fox News moderator Brett Baier also asked the candidates to raise their hands if they would support waterboarding terrorist suspects under, quote, "certain circumstances" that you can imagine.

Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum all raised their hands. The other two did not. The candidates were asked if they disagreed with President Obama's decision not to release photos of Osama bin Laden's body. All except Herman Cain indicated they would've released those photos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.