Guy Benson
My initial reactions from Greenville:

Many skeptics wondered if Gov. Tim Pawlenty might hurt or diminish himself by participating in tonight's debate -- considering that other perceived "top tier" candidates were no-shows.  In hindsight, I think Team Pawlenty will not regret their decision to show up and play.  Pawlenty shone, especially in the program's opening minutes.  He came across as serious, relatively polished, and credible.  He also seemed to be the target of some of the toughest questions of the evening, and handled them fairly well -- though he dodged a bit on evolution/creationism in schools.  Given the opportunity to attack Mitt Romney over healthcare, he demurred.  If I had to pick a winner tonight, it would be Tim Pawlenty.  Here is a clip of one of his strongest answers of the evening, in which he parlayed a question about the economy into a stinging rebuke of the Obama administration on Boeing and the NRLB.  This was a savvy play because the controversy he addressed is a huge issue here in South Carolina:


Former Sen. Rick Santorum turned in an uneven performance tonight.  He seemed stiffer and less at ease than I'd expected from a veteran politician -- although surely he deserves some time to shake off the rust.  As a talk radio host, Santorum should be adept at handling "hard breaks," yet he often ran over time on his answers -- rushing to convey his final points.  His best moments: (1) His answer on Gov. Mitch Daniels' proposed "truce" on social issues.  This was in Santorum's wheelhouse, and he thrilled the audience with his answer, which was very unforgiving of Daniels (he "doesn't understand" America).  People may part ways with Santorum on his fervency on social issues, but the crowd here loved it, and it was the question he seemed most eager to answer.  (2)  Given a chance to take a nasty shot at Newt Gingrich over his past marital issues, Santorum instead gave a very gracious, thoughtful, statesmanlike response.

The man who may have helped himself the most tonight was Herman Cain.  The audience adored him, and he won several loud ovations for his straight-talking, no-nonsense answers.  Frank Luntz's focus group on Fox sounded even more impressed.  While he'll have to do much more prep work on policy specifics for future debates, his tone, charisma, and outsider status made him a hit.  In short, for many viewers, this was their first encounter with Herman Cain -- and he made a good first impression.

If you're into candidates with devoted cult followings and almost no shot at winning, you probably loved Rep. Ron Paul's performance tonight.  His answers on a host of issues did not fly with the conservative audience (coercive interrogations of terrorists comes to mind), although he -- as always -- commanded the undying affection of a core group of vocal supporters.  Rep. Paul probably provided the funniest moment of the evening with his hilarious impression of a heroin addict.

Former Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico did not have a very good night at all.  He griped about not getting enough questions early on, then got flustered by a later (admittedly silly) question about Donald Trump, and expressed gratitude for getting "a break."  His positions on issues seemed even less compatible with mainstream Republican voters than his libertarian counterpart's.  Swing and a miss from a man who needed a home run to even come close to the second tier.

Those candidates who didn't decide to join the fray tonight may have missed an opportunity tonight.  It's plenty early, and there's lots of time to build one's case, but this debate did not feel like the totally useless waste of time that many predicted.

Finally, I feel compelled to congratulate Fox News on a superb debate.  Panelists Bret Baier, Chris Wallace, Juan Williams, and Shannon Bream asked  tough, well-researched questions that had all five men squirming at one time or another.  Sure, there was some frivolity near the end, but for an opening salvo in the 2012 GOP debate format, Fox offered viewers a laudable display of thorough, fair journalism.

Note: Some may allege that because I named Pawlenty the winner and I posted a clip of him in this analysis, I'm in the tank for TPaw.  Not the case.  To be clear, I have no preference in this race at this point.  At all.  I call them as I see them, and tonight I'm calling it for Pawlenty.  Please feel free to disagree in the comments.  Also, the reason I embedded a relevant video of Pawlenty, and not anyone else, is because his campaign staffers were very active in emailing bite-sized clips of his answers as the debate unfolded.  Hint to other campaigns: This sort of thing makes a blogger's life much easier.

Alright, have at it: Did I totally miss the mark with my analysis?  Politics can be very subjective.  Who won tonight?

Guy Benson

Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Senior Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography