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2012: Last night's debate

The New York Post’s lead: “Five Republicans slammed President Obama -- but went easy on one another -- in South Carolina last night for the first presidential debate of the 2012 elections, while many big-name potential candidates stayed on the sidelines.”

“Republican presidential hopefuls on Thursday night didn't allow President Obama's widely-praised operation that killed Usama bin Laden this week to deter them from attacking his foreign policy or blaming his domestic policies for high gas prices and the fragile economy recovery,” Fox News writes of its South Carolina debate last night. “Pawlenty and Santorum were among the five participants seeking to prove themselves to be more than the party's B-team as they try to catapult their White House bids into the national spotlight.”  

This may be the most important point of the night: “The candidates offered few specific solutions for adding jobs and improving the economy, a key voter issue according to an April poll by Winthrop University,” The (South Carolina) State newspaper’s O’Connor writes. (There was only about six minutes out of 90 devoted to the economy, by our rough count last night.)

The New York Times’ take: “While candidates in presidential debates often need no introduction, the participants who filed onto the stage at the Peace Center for the Performing Arts offered an exception to that rule. There were two former governors, a member of Congress, a former senator and the former chief executive of a chain of pizza restaurants — all of whom round out the lower rung of an unsettled Republican field.”

More: “The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, sought to allay the worries of party activists who believe Republicans are missing an opportunity to start defining Mr. Obama in their quest to win back the White House. ‘As we all know, there are numerous other candidates that are looking at it — and thank God,’ Mr. Priebus said before the proceedings began. “Quite frankly, I think Americans are sick and tired of two-year, knock-out drag-out contests with a zillion debates and forums.”

The Washington Post calls the debate an “awkward moment” for the GOP. “With many of the party’s potentially strongest candidates either choosing not to participate — or still making up their minds about whether to run — the 90-minute debate offered a platform for second-tier candidates to make their case. They took full advantage of the spotlight, but in the process they offered dissonance in the GOP message along with moments of comedic relief to the audience. That made for a sometimes-entertaining evening for the audience in the hall and those watching on television. But it probably did little to help Republican voters figure out who has the stature and the strength to take on the president in 2012.”

The Wall Street Journal: “Just days after Mr. Obama scored one of the biggest triumphs of his presidency with the killing of Osama bin Laden, several of the candidates laid into Mr. Obama for actions taken elsewhere in the world. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty congratulated Mr. Obama on the bin Laden killing but complained that the president had deferred to allies in the intervention in Libya. ‘If he said [Libyan leader] Moammar Gadhafi must go, he needs to maintain the options to make Gadhafi go. And he didn't do that,’ Mr. Pawlenty said.”

Ouch. Pawlenty’s comments on climate change are dubbed, “The ‘I’m sorry’ moment” by The State. It did note, however, that it thought Pawlenty (and Paul) got the “loudest support.” It also labels Santorum as “dodging the question,” for his answer on Pakistan and what he’d do about it.

HUNTSMAN: Some members of Congress – including some in key primary state South Carolina – reject the notion that Jon Huntsman’s campaign is a nonstarter because of his work as an ambassador in the Obama administration, The Hill writes. “I think that enhances his credentials — he was sent to represent the people of the United States,” said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.).

Jon Huntsman is scheduled to meet with Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina today, the Salt Lake Tribune writes.

PAUL: An online money bomb for Rep. Ron Paul raised nearly $590,000 in advance of Paul’s appearance in the Fox News debate last night, The Hill reports.

Paul has opened a campaign office in Ankeny, IA, the Des Moines Register writes.

PAWLENTY: Tim Pawlenty “found himself on the defense several times during the debate,” Minnesota Public Radio recounts. “He defended his fiscal record as Minnesota governor, claiming he did not leave Minnesota's finances in poor shape. And he, once again, apologized for his early interest in cap and trade, a market-based system designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Erick Erickson says Pawlenty and Cain won the debate. “Tonight, he proved he is Presidential material. Maybe it was because of the people surrounding him — the one eyed man is king among the blind. But I think it was more than that. He came across polished in his own right and not just in comparison to the others. His answers were solid. His admission of error on cap and trade was solid. His jobs answer was golden. His attacks on the President were spot on.”

Roll Call’s Bellantoni: “Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty used the first Republican presidential debate — and the absence of major contenders — to showcase his credentials, deflect criticism of unpopular positions and introduce himself to voters.” But: “The most newsworthy element of the Fox News-hosted forum held Thursday night in Greenville, S.C., might have been the number of likely candidates missing from the stage.”

ROMNEY: In two recent New Hampshire polls from Suffolk University and the University of New Hampshire, Mitt Romney has a “commanding” lead, taking 35 percent of the vote in the Suffolk poll and 36 percent in UNH’s, U.S. News reports. The only other candidate to clock in with double digits is Donald Trump who had 11 percent in the UNH survey.

Romney told Politico that he agrees with President Obama’s decision not to show photos of Osama bin Laden, writing in a statement, “"It's best not to release the photo because it has the potential to incite retaliatory violence against Americans.”