GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Most of the expected field did not take part in the first debate of the 2012 Republican presidential race in Greenville Thursday, but South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley sure did.
Just five candidates -- in a GOP field expected to grow to twice that size -- took part in the debate, the first official event of the 2012 campaign season. The debaters were former Godfather's Pizza chief executive Herman Cain, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
With so few candidates at the debate, Haley played a supporting role as the Fox News moderators took up her challenge to presidential candidates to weigh in on a National Labor Relations Board complaint against Boeing Charleston's plant.
Pawlenty jumped first, claiming President Barack Obama's administration crossed a new line in opposing Boeing's decision to locate outside of its home base of Washington.
"It's a preposterous decision," he said.
Cain agreed. "It's outrageous," he said, "and it would upset the balance of our free market system." Fox twice cut to Haley, nodding to the answers on their broadcast.
Fox's moderators started with recent news: The U.S. military killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and the continuing war in Afghanistan.
The candidates praised Obama for the military raid, but argued one good decision does not negate others, singling out the national health care law and federal deficit spending.
There were some differences, however.
Cain was the only candidate who said he would not release a photo of bin Laden's body. Paul opposed use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques on captured terrorists that some argue are torture, and said the U.S. would not have a budget deficit if it had stayed out of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Santorum was critical of Obama's leadership during the Iranian unrest last year. "The president of the United State sides with the mullahs instead of the demonstrators," he said.
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.
Cain said he supported the FairTax, a flat, 23 percent sales tax to replace income and payroll taxes.
Johnson said he would cut corporate taxes and oppose all tariffs on foreign trade. He also advocated cutting the federal Medicare and Medicaid health care programs by 43 percent and giving block grants to states to encourage them to innovate ways to hold down medical costs.
Fox's moderators also got Pawlenty again to retract his position on Minnesota's trial program to limit carbon emissions, also known as cap and trade.
"I was wrong. It was a mistake, and I'm sorry," Pawlenty said. "It's ham-fisted." The crowd favored "tea party" favorite Paul, who got off the night's most memorable line when arguing in favor of allowing states to decide whether drugs should be legal, a position that he says defends Americans' First Amendment liberties.
"How many people here would use heroin if it were legal?" Paul asked, before mockingly saying he would.
Much of the debate had nothing to do with the event itself, but rather debate about why so many potential Republican front-runners declined to take part.
The five candidates who participated totaled less support -- combined -- than celebrity-developer Donald Trump in an April poll of South Carolina Republicans by Winthrop University.
The moderators closed the debate asking each candidate present about one possible contestant who was absent, including U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Trump. Not mentioned was former vice presidential nominee and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
In a shot at another potential candidate, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Santorum vigorously opposed Republicans who say the party should set aside divisive social issues this election.
"Anybody who wants to call a truce on social issues doesn't understand what America is about," Santorum said.
(c) 2011, The State (Columbia, S.C.).
Visit the State, www.thestate.com.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.