Pawlenty scores some points in first GOP debate

The first Republican debate of the primary season
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson met in the first Republican debate of the primary season.
Fox News Photo

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty offered President Obama a little praise before burying him in criticism for his handling of foreign policy as he and four other likely Republican candidates for president met for the first debate of the 2012 primary season in Greenville, S.C.

Pawlenty, along with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Georgia businessman Herman Cain also showed up to the debate, hosted by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party.

Absent were other possible or probably presidential candidates, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Given the huge news of the U.S. military raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden this week, it came as no surprise that foreign policy was the first subject broached at the debate. Pawlenty, getting the first question of the night, might have surprised the crowd when he offered President Obama a compliment for his conduct of the mission.

"I do congratulate President Obama for the fine job that he did," Pawlenty said.

The kind words stopped there. Pawlenty accused the president of deferring to the Arab League and the United Nations in setting U.S. foreign policy with Libya.

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"He made a decision to subordinate our decision making to the United Nations," Pawlenty said. "I don't agree with that at all. If he says Gadhafi must go, he needs to maintain the options to make Gadhafi go. And he didn't do that."

Tim Pawlenty
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks with reporters after a Republican debate in Greenville, S.C. on May 5, 2011.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

All of the candidates but Cain said they would release a photo of bin Laden's corpse, something Obama has decided not to do. And Pawlenty, along with Santorum and Cain, said they would support waterboarding as a means of "enhanced" interrogation in some cases. In discussing foreign policy, Pawlenty made a point of noting how many times he had been to the Middle East.

On the domestic front, Pawlenty drew wild applause from the audience when he stood with South Carolinians over a local labor issue involving Boeing aircraft jobs.

"You have this administration, through the National Labor Relations Board, telling a private company that they cannot relocate to South Carolina and provide jobs in this state. And they are good-paying jobs, and they're needed jobs. It's a preposterous decision and position of this administration."

Pawlenty found himself on the defense several times during the debate. 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.

"Nobody's perfect," Pawlenty said. "If anybody's perfect, come on up here, because we'd like that person to be running for president."

Pawlenty declined to criticize the absent Romney for implementing a state-sponsored health care plan in Massachusetts as governor and then ripping the Democratic-led federal health care overhaul, often seen as a larger-scale version of what Massachusetts did.

Pawlenty wasn't the only candidate to win over the audience. Both Paul and Cain received applause -- Paul for his limited government libertarian approach and Cain for his status as a political outsider.

"Most of the people that are in elected office in Washington D.C. have held public office before. How's that working for you?" Cain asked.

As some 2,000 Republican enthusiasts streamed out of the debate, many appeared to have enjoyed the exchange. Some political analysts said, with the big names not on stage, Pawlenty had a chance to stand out among the group of lesser-known contenders.

"I don't think [Pawlenty] stood out any more than anyone else," Dave Ellison of Greenville said. "But I liked him a lot going in, and I like him a lot going out. I thought he did a great job."

Furman University Political Science Professor Brent Nelsen said, while Pawlenty may have failed to stand out, he showed political savvy by repeatedly bringing up the local battle over the Boeing jobs.

"He got his biggest cheer by really backing our governor's position in saying that Boeing should be allowed to establish a plant anywhere in the United States that it wants to."

Following the debate, Pawlenty seemed upbeat and said he accomplished what he set out to do.

The next GOP debate is scheduled for June 13 in Manchester, N.H.