The South Carolina debate was most notable, as everyone is saying, for who wasn’t there; only one plausible nominee showed up, and two of the five candidates were from the party’s tiny libertarian wing. Still, it’s a presidential debate, right? Right? Let’s see . . .

I’ll start with a note on substance. First of all: Yup, the one national security issue that really gets them passionate is torture. Outside of the libertarians, at least. On domestic issues, I don’t have a transcript yet, but I’d love to see one of those word bubbles of it — it sure sounded to me as if this is a group more concerned about inflation than about jobs. Overall, though, there was a lot less on the economy than I would have expected, but that’s probably not the candidates’ faults as much as it was the moderators’ choices.

On to the candidates.

Tim Pawlenty, I thought, was far from polished. As he was the only “real” candidate there, I’d say it was a mixed bag; the other four neither diminished him by turning the event into a clown show, nor elevated him — at least to my eyes and ears, he didn’t really seem to be far more “presidential” than the others. I suspect he’ll improve over the course of the debates. The trick for him is to find some way to slip in the kind of red meat that primary electorates like while staying within his Minnesota nice-guy personality. He wasn’t there yet last night, at least not in my view. It’s not unlike the challenge that Barack Obama faced four years ago.

More Pawlenty: His best moment was when he was challenged about a flip-flop on cap-and-trade; he was clearly prepared with what I thought was an answer that will play well and which made a good contrast with how Mitt Romney handles his own flip-flops. Worst moment? Hey, governor — never, never, never get bogged down talking about the state legislature during a presidential debate. It doesn’t even work well for liberal-bashing. Pivot as fast as possible, if necessary, to cheap shots at easy targets (the word “teleprompter” is still a sure winner, I believe).

The Libertarian Duo: Ron Paul was in good form; there’s not much to say there. He is what he is, and we know the upside of that once the voting starts. Gary Johnson was the most disappointing of the five who showed up. I suspect he’ll improve his performance, but Paul is pretty much an insurmountable problem for him; there just isn’t enough room in the GOP for a non-crank version of Ron Paul as long as the original is there. It will be interesting to see if they can figure out a way to team up against the others, but it doesn’t really seem to be in the nature of either of them to cooperate that way.

Rick Santorum? Wow, his long answer about how he’s the one who can beat an incumbent Democrat sure was pointless and useless. It’s possible he doesn’t realize that his only plausible role in these proceedings is to be as shrill and abrasive on the various social issues as possible.

And that leaves Herman Cain, who really got lucky with the composition of the group that showed up; it was really just him and Santorum going for the crazy, and his schtick is, at least so far, much the better of the two. If Bachmann, Newt and, say, Roy Moore show up next time, they’re going to have to compete with each other over who can be most outrageous, and that won’t suit Cain nearly as much as this group did. I understand he “won” the Fox focus group, but remember — the libertarians weren’t going to appeal to mainstream conservatives, and there were very few cues that Pawlenty was the “real” candidate (and while political junkies would know that, mildly attentive voters probably wouldn’t). In other words, I wouldn’t put much stock in it.

Mind you, in the long run it doesn’t really matter at all how Paul, Johnson, Santorum and Cain do in debates, since none of them is getting within smelling distance of the ticket. And while Pawlenty is certainly a contender, doing a bit better or worse in these cattle calls is probably not all that important. So it’s easy to overstate the importance of primary-election debates. So take this as at least as much theater review as anything else. Still, whatever their contribution to selecting a nominee, presidential-nomination debates are one of the most visible rituals of the nomination process — so on with the show, and we’ll see who shows up for the next round.