It may well go down as one of the least memorable GOP presidential primary debates of all time.
On Thursday night, five little-known Republican presidential hopefuls took the stage in Greenville, South Carolina, for what was billed as the first official GOP debate of the 2012 primary season. But the forum was mostly notable for the elephants who weren't in the room: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.
Presumably, the sparse field provided an opportunity for Tim Pawlenty, the only leading GOP contender to grace the stage, to stand out against a roster of second-tier Republican candidates--and in some ways, he did. But it's unclear if appearing at the forum really did Pawlenty, who continues to struggle for name recognition, any real favors.
The Minnesota governor came under tough questioning for his handling of his state's budget woes and his past support for cap-and-trade energy system to curb carbon emissions that he has since sought to distance himself from. Asked about his support for the climate change initiative, which has been criticized by several Republicans, Pawlenty declared he had "made a mistake."
"Nobody's perfect," he insisted, adding that everyone has "clunkers" in their background.
That was perhaps the only notable exchange of the 90-minute confab, sponsored by Fox News and the South Carolina GOP, which centered heavily on questions about President Obama's foreign policy and his economic positions.
Both Pawlenty and former Sen. Rick Santorum praised Obama for his handling of the raid that resulted in the death of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, but the two argued that one mission doesn't make up for what they viewed as the president's weak foreign policy approach.
"If you look at what President Obama has done right in foreign policy, it has always been a continuation of the Bush policies," Santorum insisted. "He's done right by finishing the job in Iraq. He's done right by trying to win in Afghanistan. Those were existing policies that were in place."
Asked who would have released the photos of bin Laden's body, four of the candidates on stage—Pawlenty, Santorum, Rep. Ron Paul and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson—raised their hands, while a fifth contender, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain indicated he wouldn't have.
Meanwhile, Pawlenty, Santorum and Cain argued the bin Laden raid is proof that Obama needs to resume waterboarding, a controversial interrogation technique that many regard as torture. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Paul and Johnson, the two libertarian candidates on stage, argued for an end to the mission in Afghanistan—a position that received muted applause from the GOP audience.
The Fox News moderators attempted to spice up the proceedings by baiting the contenders on stage into bashing their rivals who didn't show up for the debate. But by and large, the candidates demurred.
At one point, Pawlenty was asked about the health care plan Romney passed while governor of Massachusetts that some have likened to Obama's federal system of health care reform. But Pawlenty didn't go after the absent Romney, instead issuing a reply in accord with his Minnesota-nice image. "Governor Romney's not here to defend himself," Pawlenty said. "So I'm not going to pick on him."
Santorum was asked about Gingrich's past extramarital affairs and multiple marriages, but he defended the former House speaker's claims that he's learned from his mistakes. Still, Santorum couldn't resist trashing Mitch Daniels for his suggestion that the GOP should adopt a "truce" on social issues ahead of the 2012 primary.
"Anyone who would suggest that… doesn't understand what America is all about," he declared.
(Photo of Paul, Cain, Pawlenty, Santorum and Johnson: Fox News)