Primary Debates and Forums

First-in-the-South Republican Party Presidential Debate

screen grab
Thursday, May 5, 2011 at the Peace Center in Greenville, SC from 9:00-10:30 p.m. ET.  1, 2

Sponsors:  South Carolina Republican Party and FOX News.

Candidates:  Rep. Ron Paul, Herman Cain, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Gov. Gary Johnson.

Moderator:  Bret Baier.  Panel of reporters—Chris Wallace, Juan Williams, Shannon Bream.

Audience:  Peace Center is a 2,100-seat concert hall, although the Carolina Ledger blog reported, "Empty blocks of seats can be seen from the main floor to the second balcony."

Broadcast:  Live on the FOX News Channel.

Format:  90-minutes.  "Each candidate will be asked a series of questions on foreign and domestic issues.  Answers are limited to one minute each.  If we decide rebuttal time is needed that will be 30 seconds.  We have green, yellow and red lights to help the candidates keep track of their time, and if an answer runs long, candidates and everyone else will hear this sound [annoying bell]."  30-second closing arguments.

Overview:  This was the first debate, but because the field was still forming—the majority of potential candidates were in the exploratory or testing the waters phase or had not even announced (1)—South Carolina Republicans and FOX News did not get as many candidates to participate as they would have liked.  At one point the party announced that Newt Gingrich and Buddy Roemer were expected to participate, but Gingrich backed out and Roemer didn't meet the criteria.  Matt Rhoades of Mitt Romney's exploratory committee said Romney would not participate "because it’s still early, the field is too unsettled and he’s not yet an announced candidate."  A Gingrich spokesman said the former Speaker would make an announcement about his candidacy in a couple of weeks. 

As the highest profile candidate to participate, Pawlenty was in an interesting, or awkward, position.  Politico's Alexander Burns opined (05/05) that "really the night is all about Tim Pawlenty."  New York magazine's "Daily Intel" (05/04) presented a less positive take in a piece titled "Tim Pawlenty Takes a Seat at the Loser Table." 

Several hopefuls who wanted to be included did not get in.  Buddy Roemer, who paid the $25,000 filing fee but did not meet the polling criteria, ended up posting his responses to the questions on YouTube (+).  Longshot Fred Karger waged a protracted but unsuccessful effort to be included (+).  He ended up watching from the upper, upper balcony.  Roy Moore was also in Greenville during the debate. 

There was a bit of a kerfuffle over coverage (+).

In one sense the biggest winner of the night was Ron Paul; his supporters raised $1 million in a "money bomb" during the day.  Daily Beast's Matt Latimer penned a scathing account of "Fox News' GOP Debate Debacle" describing it as a "clash of 'Governor Tim Pawlenty and the also-rans." 

The debate was part of a series of events South Carolina Republicans are holding on May 5-7, 2011.  Following this debate on Thursday, the Silver Elephant Dinner is to be held at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center on Friday, May 6th and the 2011 SCGOP State Convention takes place the next day on Saturday, May 7th.

1. NBC's "Saturday Night Live" had some fun with this situation, hosting an "Undeclared Candidates Debate" with actors portraying Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, and the real Jimmy McMillan added in for good measure.