First 2012 GOP debate small, but telling

The great first debate in the 2012 GOP presidential campaign was a hoot. If you skipped it, it is worth revisiting, for Herman Cain and former Gov. Gary Johnson (N.M.) alone.

Those who didn't show will likely pay for it with South Carolina Republican primary voters. They were interviewed beforehand and focused grouped as well, and they aren't happy that former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) especially didn't show. Could it be more obvious that they are running? Also, to push the issue, Fox News Channel made their absence a story by including the subject in questions to those onstage. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) was asked about Gingrich, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (Minn.) was asked about former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.), Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) was asked about Rep. Michelle Bachmann (Minn.), Herman Cain was asked about Romney and Johnson was asked about Donald Trump.

ADVERTISEMENT
As the only "big" candidate at the debate, Pawlenty, whose only tough moment came when explaining his past support for cap and trade, did a great job and came across as well informed, easy going, earnest and determined. He is running as the anti-Romney, and getting to South Carolina first was a good move. Johnson, a mountain-climbing triathlete libertarian and confessed pot smoker, is smart and funny and quirky. He is the no-corporate-taxes, no-tariffs candidate and said he doesn't see a problem losing pro-life voters in the primary as a pro-choice Republican because he can make them up in the general. Santorum remains a strong forceful speaker, but he truly must stop smirking. Paul did a terrific job and received abundant applause as usual.

Finally, Cain promises to light up the race. He speaks like a CEO, listing several points in each answer by number, and is clearly enjoying himself. The audience loved him. He said he is willing to let the experts decide on Afghanistan policy as long as they can articulate a definition of success and clearly list our objectives there. He made a point of highlighting his lack of experience in any public office and will wear it like a badge.
 
Forget Sarah Palin, Trump and Bachmann — Cain, Paul and even Johnson have what it takes to shake up these debates. And we know what a great distraction like Huckabee first was in 2008 can turn into — the winner of the Iowa caucuses. Gingrich and Romney better get in there and learn how to shine in a wide-open race in a divided party.
 
 
****
WILL THE TEA PARTY JOIN THE GOP IN COMPROMISING ON THE DEBT-INCREASE VOTE, THIS EARLY? Ask A.B. returns Tuesday, May 10. Please join my weekly video Q&A by sending your questions and comments to askab@thehill.com. Thank you.