Politics and Public Opinion

First Primary Debate Presages Crowded Presidential Field

Last night, a handful of GOP presidential hopefuls threw the first punches in the fight for the 2012 Republican nomination, as the first primary debate of the campaign took place in Greenville, South Carolina. Because few of the participants have been mentioned among the top-tier candidates—and also because the debate was buried in the middle of a particularly news-heavy week—the event garnered little public attention. Yet some of last night’s developments could affect the race for the GOP nomination in the days and months to come.

Of the five candidates who participated (Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, and Gary Johnson), Pawlenty is the only one referred to as a potential top-tier candidate. Though Pawlenty turned in a solid performance, it was by no means a “slam dunk” for the former Minnesota governor. At times, he seemed to have a difficult time standing out in the midst of his more ideological colleagues like the libertarian Paul and the socially conservative Santorum.

Furthermore, Pawlenty was asked to clear up his position on cap-and-trade, faced with a 2008 advertisement in which he professed his support for such a system. (This was clearly a question that Pawlenty would rather not have faced—just prior to Fox running the audio of the ad, Pawlenty could be heard asking “Do we have to?”) Although he called his participation in the ad a mistake, an on-the-record statement in favor of a cap-and-trade system will not help a GOP presidential hopeful. That said, Pawlenty’s appearance introduced him to a national audience and may have helped to increase his name recognition, which is fairly low compared to other top contenders.

Immediately following the debate, GOP pollster Frank Luntz conducted a focus group of South Carolina Republicans for Fox News, and it deemed Cain—former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and a virtual unknown on the national stage—the clear winner. Cain had little to lose by participating in the debate, and by portraying himself as a problem-solver from the business world and a Washington outsider, he definitely won some fans in the audience. Whether they remain with him as the GOP field gets more crowded remains to be seen, but his good showing last night may help to boost his standing in upcoming polls.

And that field will be getting crowded very soon—it looks like Newt Gingrich will be in the race one week from today, and others will soon follow. For the candidates who chose to participate, yesterday’s debate may have given them a bit of a running start.

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