What we learned from the Republican presidential debate

The first debate of the 2012 Republican presidential race is in the books and, while none of the best known GOP candidates showed up, the gathering did provide a few important lessons about the contest.

Our thoughts on what what we learned from Thursday night’s debate in South Carolina are below.

* Tim Pawlenty — mostly ready for primetime: The former Minnesota governor was the only one of the five men on the stage in South Carolina who has a realistic chance at being the GOP nominee. Given that, Pawlenty had the most at stake in the debate and, for the most part, delivered. Pawlenty has clearly been advised to be aggressive in all aspects of his public communication — witness his much-discussed web videos — and on questions about terrorism and health care he delivered emphatic answers that drew applause. Pawlenty was at his best though when he drew on his personal story — he twice mentioned he came from a meat-packing town— to connect with average voters worried about their economic futures. And, while Pawlenty was the class of the debate for much of its 90 minutes, he at times appeared quite nervous and his attempt at humor — “I love the Huck”he responded to a question about former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee — fell flat.

* Rick and Ron — experience matters: Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul both benefited from having done these sorts of high-profile events before — Santorum as a former member of Senate GOP leadership and Paul as a 2008 presidential candidate. The two men were — by far — the most at ease during the debate. And while neither man put in an overwhelmingly strong performance, both were steady with a message that will appeal to their base of supporters.

* Cain the closer: As we wrote in our debate preview, businessman Herman Cain was many peoples’ pick to win the debate. And, according to GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who conducted a focus group for Fox after the debate, he did just that. Cain started very slowly but proved that in politics it matters far more how you finish. He warmed to the task as the debate went on and delivered several memorable lines — he noted he wasn’t supporting former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney because Romney didn’t win in 2008 — that drew spontaneous applause from the crowd. Cain’s background — he was president of Godfather’s Pizza — and rhetorical gifts are major assets for him going forward.

* Gary who?: Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson came into the debate with low expectations and managed to underperform them. Sensing he was bordering on irrelevance, Johnson asked the moderators for more questions but when he got them he did next-to-nothing with them. It’s hard to see how Johnson builds any momentum with a performance like the one he gave Thursday night.

* Fox’s moderators shine: The simple fact is that Fox News Channel — and its lead debate moderator Bret Baier — didn’t have all that much to work with in terms of candidates. But Baier as well as Chris Wallace, Juan Williams and Shannon Bream did everything they could to keep the conversation lively and force the candidates to explain past controversial statements. The closing segment asking the candidates who were there to discuss the candidates who weren’t was a nice touch too.

Kapanke releases first ad in Wisconsin: Wisconsin special election season has started in earnest. Dan Kapanke, the most vulnerable of the Republican state senators targeted by recall elections over their budget votes, has put out his first television ad.

“You know me,” Kapanke says in the spot. “We haven’t agreed on every issue, but I’ve always listened. When I saw our state on a dangerous path, I took action.”

The election will likely be held on July 12. Five other Republicans and three Democrats are targeted, but Kapanke is in the least safe district. Both sides expect the fight for his seat to be one of the hardest-fought of the summer.

Republicans sue over Nevada special election: Nevada Republicans are fighting Secretary of State Ross Miller’s (D) decision to allow all candidates to run for Rep. Dean Heller’s (R-Nev.) seat in the special election.

Heller has been appointed to the Senate and will be sworn in next week. Miller has said the race to fill his seat will not feature party nominees and will be open to all candidates -- a ruling Republicans feel may allow Democrats, or 2010 GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle, to win the race.

The lawsuit calls the decision a “unique and new misinterpretation of Nevada’s election laws.”

By opening the race to all candidates, Republicans may flood the field and split the GOP vote. That means a Democrat or Angle could win with a relatively low percentage of the vote.

In other news related to the race, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki (R) announced Thursday that he will not run for the seat. The decision comes as somewhat of a surprise, given that Krolicki was considered a favorite.

“It has been said that politics is about timing and that opportunities are usually few and far between,” Krolicki said in a statement. “I believe both of those statements are true, and while I appreciate the countless number of people from all over Nevada and across the country who have encouraged me to run, now is not the time.”

Fixbits:

President Obama explains why Osama bin Laden was buried at sea.

Florida state Senate President Mike Haridopolos is getting the treatment of a frontrunner in the race to face Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) -- specifically, the other Republicans are going after him.

Former Edison Mayor Jun Choi (D) announces a challenge to Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), who could be targeted in redistricting.

Must-reads:

Indiana Gov. Daniels to decide soon on White House bid ” -- AP

In long pursuit of Bin Laden, the ‘07 raid that just missed” — Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, NYT

Hispanic connection open doors for niche group” - Janie Lorber, Roll Call

With Aaron Blake and Rachel Weiner

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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