Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty used the first Republican presidential debate — and the absence of major contenders — to showcase his credentials, deflect criticism of unpopular positions and introduce himself to voters.
The most newsworthy element of the Fox News-hosted forum held Thursday night in Greenville, S.C., might have been the number of likely candidates missing from the stage. The debate was the first of the primary season, but top contenders Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich skipped it. Other potential candidates — including Mitch Daniels, Jon Huntsman, Donald Trump and Sarah Palin — stayed home.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.); Rep. Ron Paul (Texas); former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson; and Herman Cain, who has never held public office, appeared with Pawlenty in Thursday’s debate.
One challenge Pawlenty faces is a lack of name recognition nationally, and he used the evening to tell his personal story and introduce himself to the voters tuning in to the still-forming race for the first time.
Pawlenty was put on the defensive when moderators presented him with a 2008 radio spot he recorded favoring a cap on greenhouse gases. The former governor told the audience he “made a mistake” and no longer supports a cap-and-trade system. “Nobody’s perfect,” he said.
Perhaps aware that he was the frontrunner onstage and that the evening carried low stakes, Pawlenty repeatedly detailed his record and reminded voters that he was from a working-class background. “I saw the face of job loss and economic worry in my hometown and even in my own family,” Pawlenty said.
The former governor mentioned several times that he grew up in a meat-packing town and worked in a labor union for seven years. “I understand this issue,” Pawlenty said when asked about the recent labor fight in Wisconsin. “We’re not against hardworking men and women. It’s not about bashing unions, it’s about being pro-job.”
He added that he balanced budgets over his eight years as governor and that he has been to Iraq five times and Afghanistan three times.
At one point in the debate, Pawlenty said, “As I get better known, I’m getting more and more support.”
In a testament to Pawlenty’s stature among his rivals on stage, the Democratic National Committee’s first two “fact-check” emails about the event were targeted at Pawlenty.
The moderators also asked Pawlenty about the health care plan Romney implemented during his time as governor of Massachusetts, but the Minnesotan declined to go after his rival. “I’m not going to pick on him,” he said.
Instead, Pawlenty mentioned Barack Obama’s January 2008 speech after his victory in the Iowa presidential caucuses. Obama had pledged to pass a health care program that would earn support from Republicans. “He broke that promise,” Pawlenty said.
Santorum, meanwhile, used most of his answers to sharply critique Obama on health care, spending and foreign policy.