5 Things We Learned from the First GOP Primary Debate

1. This Debate Was Too Early 

When there’s a lightning round at the end of the debate about the major candidates who aren’t on stage, it’s a sign that the field is too unsettled to have the debate in the first place. It’s a shame, not just because it created a hazy read on what issues will come to dominate. It also wasted what turned out to be effective, pointed questioning by the Fox News moderators. 

2. More People Will Learn Tim Pawlenty’s Name 

He admitted from the stage that he’s got still got major name recognition work to do, which is why it was a good strategic play to get in front of the debate cameras. Still, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawenty stood alone as a candidate ready for the national stage. 

He got his digs in early to the other candidates who didn’t show up, but more impressive was his pivot when he was asked directly about his previous support for cap-and-trade in Minnesota. Pawlenty confronted it directly, calling it a mistake. He chalked it up to one of a few inevitable wrong decisions given his long executive experience.

Pawlenty also showed off his defensive debating skills and contained what could be future ammo against him, like when he repeatedly dodged a question asking his personal position on evolution — saying that whether to teach it should be left up to local school boards. 

3. Look for Attacks on Health Care Costs

With Mitt Romney presumably in the field (but not at this debate), look for more pointed criticism of the limited cost containment measures in the federal health care legislation and in Massachusetts, where Romney oversaw passage of heath care reform as governor. This allows the one-two philosophical-economic punch: the new law isn’t just too much government, it’ll also break your wallet.  

And that’s an attractive argument with gas prices over 4 dollars and voters still concerned about a sluggish job market. After all, as Rep. Ron Paul said from the stage, “people vote with their bellies,” meaning presumably, on economic issues. 

4. You May Need to Google “Unallotment” and “Minnesota” 

It’ll get you in the weeds fast, but this came up when Pawlenty was asked about how he closed budget gaps in Minnesota without raising taxes. He went on to give too much detail about the state’s budget cycle and how you can fiddle with the math to argue that he left the state with a projected deficit, but it does get to a central question: what kind of budget tricks did Pawlenty use to not raise taxes. With the debt ceiling vote and ongoing debate about borrowing and the minutiae of fiscal accounting, Pawlenty’s “unallotment” battle with the legislature and the state Supreme Court may just warrant more attention. 

5. Donald Who? 

First, there were those jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner, then his poor showing in the latest poll in New Hampshire, and now this: Donald Trump only came up in questions to New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the pro-drug legalization candidate who was treated as the fringe candidate in a field of unknown candidates -- so much so that at one point, he broke in to to complain that he wasn’t getting enough questions. So he did get this question near the end -- if, like Trump, he had a reality show, what would that be about, which led to a rambling answer about climbing Mount Everest, running marathons, Sarah Palin “climbing on her hands and knees", and finally, to the conclusion that the Gary Johnson reality show would be about fitness. 

So maybe, just maybe, that will be the last reality show question of the 2012 campaign cycle. Which means, on second thought, maybe this first debate didn’t come soon enough.