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The GOP debate: No grown-ups edition

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Hollywood is reportedly at work on a remake of the 1991 film “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.” This, however, is unnecessary, because a remake is already playing. It’s called the Republican presidential primary.

In the original, a mom leaves her kids with a babysitter for three months, but after the babysitter dies of a heart attack, the children fend for themselves for the summer.

The GOP nominating contest so far follows a very similar plot. With the grown-ups (played by Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels) out of town, the field has been left in the custody of caretakers (played by Mitt Romney, Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich). When even the babysitters fail to show up at the first debate of the season, the juveniles run the thing themselves.

At Thursday night’s debate in South Carolina, Libertarian Rep. Ron Paul explained why heroin and prostitution should be legal and why the Department of Homeland Security should be eliminated.

Retired pizza executive Herman Cain explained why the Internal Revenue Service should be abolished and why people who would allow abortion in cases of rape and incest are “pro-choice.”

Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson argued for eliminating the minimum wage and corporate taxes and for cutting Medicare nearly in half.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum attempted to explain why he criticized “radical feminism” for working women and why he said Islam was “stuck in the 7th century.”

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty declared the United Nations a “pathetic organization.”

On a day when President Obama placed a wreath at Ground Zero, his would-be presidential opponents looked comparatively childish. Half an hour into the debate, Johnson interrupted moderator Chris Wallace. “It’s, like, nine questions for all these guys and none for me,” he protested.

If there’s any good news for the Republican Party to come out of the first presidential debate, it’s that the Associated Press and Reuters didn’t cover it.

In the absence of adults, the first presidential debate favored the noisiest, and the least likely to win. Cain, a man who wants to return to the gold standard, had the most successful line of the night when he defended his inexperience.

“I ask people, ‘Most of the people in elective office in Washington, D.C., they have held public office before. How’s that working for you?’ ” the former Godfather’s Pizza boss said. “We have a mess!”

GOP pollster Frank Luntz, doing a focus group for debate-sponsor Fox News, reported that he had seen a massive shift in voter sentiment toward the man from Godfather’s Pizza (motto: “A pizza you can’t refuse.”) “This is unprecedented!” Luntz said of the candidate in the godfather-style double-breasted suit.

Contrast that with Pawlenty, arguably the only one of the five men on stage who has a chance of winning the nomination. He elicited boos from the crowd when he tried to explain his shift away from a cap on greenhouse-gas emissions. “I was wrong. It was a mistake and I’m sorry,” he pleaded.

Pawlenty’s explanation: “If anybody is perfect, come on up here and stand by this podium, because we would like that person to be running for president.”

At this point, the Republicans would settle for somebody well short of perfect. There remains a hope that a white knight will arrive to rescue Republican primary voters from this lackluster field, but there is growing concern among party elders that such a person may not exist.

There’s Mitt Romney, but he’s the paternity-denying father of Obamacare. There’s Donald Trump, but he’s the midwife of the birther campaign. Gingrich has been rejected by his peers and married three times.

Could it be that Herman Cain really is the best they’ve got?

There certainly is something intriguing about him. Consider, for example, his Afghanistan plan: He doesn’t have one.

“No,” Cain admitted when asked if he had a policy. He explained that “at this point, I don’t know all of the facts.”

In their opposition to Obama, the five men agreed. What they couldn’t agree on was a consistent counter-argument. Cain defended his claim that Obama’s action on gay marriage is “bordering on treason.” Paul defended his proposed end to all foreign aid, including Israel’s, saying it’s not as if “every Jew in this country believes we ought to have the policy we have.”

Late in the debate, Santorum was asked about a suggestion by one of the missing grown-ups, Daniels, that Republicans should call a “truce” on social issues. “Anybody that would suggest that we call a truce on the moral issues doesn’t understand what America is all about,” Santorum inveighed.

We’ll just have to let the kids fight it out on the playground.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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