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Already? GOP Kicks Off Presidential Debates

The first debate of the 2012 presidential campaign began with introductions — Rep. Ron Paul of Texas; Herman Cain, former chairman and CEO of Godfather's Pizza; Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota; former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania; and Gary Johnson, businessman and former governor of New Mexico.

Not attending Thursday's Republican event in Greenville, S.C. were Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Mitch Daniels. Needless to say, the GOP field is still taking shape, but the show went on.

It was no surprise when the first question dealt with the big news of the week — Osama bin Laden. Pawlenty was asked about his statement of a few weeks ago that President Obama looks weak as a leader. He responded with congratulations for the president.

"He did a good job and I tip my hat to him in that moment," Pawlenty said. "But that moment is not the sum total of American foreign policy. He's made a number of decisions around the world that I don't agree with."

Paul, who has called for ending U.S. foreign aid, was asked if bin Laden might still be alive and at large if the U.S. had pulled out of Afghanistan years ago as he advocated.

"We went to Afghanistan to get him and he hasn't been there," Paul said. "Now that he's killed, boy it is a wonderful time for this country now to reassess [the U.S. presence in Afghanistan] and get the troops out of Afghanistan, and end that war that hasn't helped us and hasn't helped anybody in the Middle East."

Then came the economy and domestic issues, an area where all of those who were onstage see the president as being very vulnerable.

"One of the biggest problems we have with this country today is too much government intervention in trying to tell business what they do best," Cain said. "Government doesn't create jobs — business creates jobs."

And there was discussion of the debate within the Republican Party between those who think economic issues should dominate and those who insist the focus should be on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

"I think anybody who says we should call a truce on the moral issues doesn't understand what America is all about," Santorum said.

In any debate there is often one moment that stands out. Thursday night it involved Paul. He was questioned about the belief that prostitution, marijuana and heroin should be legalized.

"What you're inferring is that if we legalize heroin tomorrow everybody would use heroin," Paul said. "How many people would use heroin if it's legal? I bet nobody would use heroin or say, 'Oh yeah, I want heroin, I need the government to protect me so I need these laws.' "

There will be more debates. Expect more such moments — though with a larger field of participants — as eventually, last night's no-shows won't be able to opt out by saying it's too early.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.