How the five GOP candidates fared at the South Carolina debate 

This early in the game, and without a full field participating or even declared, it’s hard to really pick winners and losers in tonight’s South Carolina debate. So I thought I’d offer a rundown of each candidate’s performance.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty – Going into the debate, there was a lot of questions about whether he made the right decision by participating, because he’s the candidate on stage with the most plausible path to the nomination and Mitt Romney chose not to take part. Ultimately, I think he did fine. He gave standard conservative answers on most questions and got what may have been the biggest applause of the night by bringing up the NLRB’s complaint against Boeing, which is obviously a major issue in South Carolina. I think he’ll get some points for showing up when other so-called top tier candidates didn’t. He also got extra practice debating. Romney already has plenty from his first time around.

Former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum – A lot of people have written off Santorum’s candidacy, especially given that he lost his last Senate race in Pennsylvania by an 18-point margin. But I think he did a good job of reminding some conservatives why they liked him at one point. He’s obviously most well-known for being a staunch social conservative, but he also came off as a forceful advocate for a more hawkish foreign policy approach and one that confronts the actual ideology of radical Islam. In one exchange with Ron Paul, he argued that water boarding helped gain some of the information that led to bin Laden. And while Paul argued that pulling out of Afghanistan wouldn’t have prevented us from getting bin Laden in Pakistan, Santorum fired back that the special forces team was able to fly in and out of Pakistan because we’re in Afghanistan. Santorum also gave a compassionate, non-judgmental answer when he was asked about how social conservatives should react to Newt Gingrich’s personal problems. Ultimately, Santorum will be doomed in this environment because of his fiscal policies as a Bush era Republican, from his vote for Medicare Part D to advocacy of dairy industry supports for rural Pennsylvania. Also, his endorsement of Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in the 2004 Senate race will haunt him.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex. – When it wasn’t clear that he was going to run for president, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson was being described as a potentially more reasonable Ron Paul. But tonight, Ron Paul was a more reasonable Ron Paul. Back during the 2008 debates, Paul was good at energizing his core supporters, but he expressed his views clumsily, either alienating other voters or leaving them confused. But this time around, he was much better at explaining his foreign policy vision. One question that stood out for me was Israel, which in the past Paul has attacked with hostility. Tonight, he expressed the non-interventionist view in a more tactful way, saying he supports Israel’s right to do whatever it wants – including bombing Iran – but is just opposed to foreign aid.

Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain – In the post-debate Luntz focus group, Cain was the runaway winner. Participants in the panel were impressed by his non-politician, business-like approach. There’s something to be said for this, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons Donald Trump has done well in polls. It’s something to watch in the current anti-Washington environment. That said, he’s going to need some work on foreign policy. On several occasions, he’d criticize President Obama for not articulating a clear foreign policy, and yet he himself deferred on many questions by saying he couldn’t state his views without seeing the intelligence and consulting with experts. That sort of dodge won’t survive a long campaign.

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson – In a field absent Ron Paul, he’d have an easier time breaking through. But he wasn’t very memorable in this debate. His answers were also incoherent at times, because he’d start to get into a point and then would run out of time. If he keeps doing these debates, he’ll probably get better at clock management and learning to pack more points into an answer. 

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Philip Klein

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