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In debate, GOP presidential wannabes display ideological purity

Republicans had hoped to begin the long process of choosing a candidate to take on Barack Obama in 2012 with a bang. But the contenders who took part in the first debate of the nomination race may have beaten their right-wing drum too loudly to unseat the President.

The five-man field of presidential wannabes who showed up for Thursday night's debate here stood out as ideological purists. And their dominance of the campaign's early days could set the GOP on a course toward nominating its most right-wing candidate in decades.

With the Tea Party movement still showing its might, some moderate Republicans worry the GOP could choose a presidential nominee who is too radical to appeal to the crucial independent voters who decide elections. Thursday's debate is unlikely to have dispelled such concerns.

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In a 90-minute confrontation at Greenville's 2500-seat Peace Concert Hall, dyed-in-the-wool libertarians Ron Paul and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson faced off against hard core social conservative Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and anti-abortion advocate.

Even Tim Pawlenty, who as Minnesota governor positioned himself as a moderate, played up his conservative bona fides to appeal to Tea Partiers - though not convincingly enough for many in the crowd.

Indeed, Mr. Pawlenty's generally flat performance may have undone some of the goodwill he generated by showing up in South Carolina when most of the top tier candidates opted to sit out the debate.

Social issues - from the teaching of creationism in schools to embryonic stem cell research - occupied much of the debate.

Mr. Santorum rejected a call by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, a moderate Republican and potential presidential contender, for a "truce" within the party on debates over abortion, gay marriage and other contentious social issues in order to rally GOP voters around an economic platform in 2012.

"Anybody who would suggest we call a truce on moral issues doesn't understand what America is all about," Mr. Santorum retorted to loud applause from the crowd.

But it was Mr. Paul, the Texas congressman who has established a devoted following with his radical proposal to abolish the U.S. central bank and isolationist foreign policy, who got the by far the most applause when the candidates were introduced and throughout the evening.

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He voiced opposition to raising the U.S. debt ceiling, which Congress must do by mid-year to avoid a federal government default. Mr. Paul played down the consequences of a failure by the U.S. to honour its debts. "Our country has defaulted three different times," he scoffed.

The death of Osama bin Laden in a Navy SEAL raid authorized last weekend by Mr. Obama did not prevent the candidates from heavily criticizing the President on his conduct of foreign policy.

"That [bin Laden]moment is not the sum total of the President's foreign policy," Mr. Pawlenty charged, accusing Mr. Obama of delegating the decision over U.S. action in Libya to the United Nations.

"If you look at what President Obama has done right in foreign policy, it's been a continuation of [George W.]Bush policies," Mr. Santorum added. He blamed the President for "siding with the mullahs" instead of demonstrators during Iran's 2009 Green revolution.

Mr. Paul, who has been highly critical of U.S. defence spending, called the demise of Mr. bin Laden "a wonderful time" to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan: "We went to Afghanistan to get him, and he hasn't been there."

Indeed, Mr. Paul distinguished himself from the other candidates in severely criticizing the use of torture of suspected terrorists that Mr. Santorum credited with providing the intelligence that led to Mr. bin Laden.

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Mr. Pawlenty pleased the local crowd by criticizing the National Labor Relations Board's recent move to sue Boeing for moving jobs to South Carolina, a so-called right-to-work state where the closed union shop is outlawed. The NLRB said the move amounted to an unlawful retaliation by Boeing against its union work force in Washington state.

"It's a preposterous decision," Mr. Pawlenty charged.

None of the GOP contenders who are leading in polls of Republican voters - Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin - showed up for Thursday's debate. Among them, only ex-Massachusetts governor Mr. Romney has taken a formal step toward the nomination by launching a so-called exploratory committee.

The slow start to the 2012 Republican nomination race stands in stark contrast to the situation four years ago, when 10 candidates participated in the South Carolina debate - including all of the top-tier contenders.

The absence of the big names at the Greenville debate could come back to haunt them. The South Carolina GOP primary, which usually follows right after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, has been a must-win for every Republican nominee since its inception 1980.

"This debate signals 'go' time," South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said in interview with Canadian journalists here. "Some candidates understand that they want to be here early. They want to show their aggressiveness …The others are going to have to make up for lost time."

Former U.S. ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, a pillar of the state Republican Party and co-chair of the debate committee, added: "You've got to spend time in South Carolina to play well here … Those that are here are going to benefit from it … It may be a missed chance for those that are not."

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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