A handful of little known Republican presidential candidates touted their conservative credentials and vied for a brief shot at the political spotlight Thursday at a sparsely attended first debate of the 2012 White House campaign.
With the party's most high-profile contenders skipping the proceedings, the five participants used the nationally televised forum to slam President Barack Obama's leadership and attack what they called his misguided policies on the economy, healthcare and foreign affairs.
"The issues that have come up while he's been president, he's gotten them wrong strategically every single time," former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, the lone top-tier candidate at the debate, said of Obama's foreign policy.
Along with Pawlenty, the debate featured four longshot contenders -- U.S. Representative Ron Paul, former Senator Rick Santorum, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and former pizza executive Herman Cain.
All five decried what they said was a growing government intrusiveness in private markets and private lives, and they said Obama would be beaten in 2012 because of the weakness of the economy and the growing budget deficit.
"We're in big trouble, prices are going up, unemployment is continuing to go up," Paul said, calling it Obama's biggest vulnerability.
The absence of more high-profile candidates like Mitt Romney was a testament to the slow-starting and unsettled Republican race for the right to face Obama. Most of the party's big names have chosen to delay a decision on entry.
Four potential candidates who score well in early opinion polls -- Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich -- have made no formal move to run.
The debate was also overshadowed to some degree by Obama's Thursday trip to the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City.
That visit came four days after U.S. forces killed al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden in a watershed achievement for Obama, but several of the Republicans noted that the lead that led to bin Laden resulted from enhanced interrogation techniques criticized by Obama.
'A GOOD JOB'
"A good job. I tip my cap to him in that moment. That moment is not the sum total of America's foreign policy," Pawlenty said.
The debate was an opportunity for Pawlenty to showcase his fiscal and socially conservative views for a national audience, but he rarely attacked Obama as strongly as his longshot rivals. And none of the candidates would criticize the Republicans who did not show up.
Pawlenty and the others did attack Obama's healthcare overhaul, with Pawlenty calling it "one of the most partisan, misguided pieces of legislation in the country -- it is going to make healthcare worse, not better."
About 300 Tea Party supporters rallied in downtown Greenville before the debate, and Republican Governor Nikki Haley urged the candidates to be clear about how they would turn around the economy and help working families.
State Republican Party Chairwoman Karen Floyd said she was not disappointed with the low turnout for the debate.
"Who knows? We might have the next candidate sitting on the stage," she said. "Our job is not to set the field. Our job is to showcase the field."
The debate was marred by controversy over restrictions imposed by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party barring the media from taking photographs of the debate. Fox News also did not allow agencies to distribute video of the event internationally.
The Associated Press chose not to cover the debate at all in protest of the photography limits, while Reuters did not cover it photographically. (Editing by Todd Eastham)
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