GREENVILLE , S.C.--The verdict was in before Thursday's Republican presidential debate even got started: With most of the major contenders sitting it out, the night was certain to be a bust -- so much so that even House Speaker John Boehnerat a Washington D.C. steakhouse instead of tuning in.
Except, a funny thing happened here in Greenville. For 90 minutes, with rapid-fire questions from four engaged anchors from Fox News, the debate proved conventional wisdom wrong.
Sure, the top contenders weren't there, but so what? In this debate, there were substantive moments on foreign policy and the economy, lively responses on social issues and ample opportunity for these five potential candidates to bash President Obama, defend past Republican presidents and explain their own views and potential weaknesses.
And there were two winners: Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and businessman Herman Cain. Both clearly benefited from the small group on stage -- because they were able to assume roles they can take with them for a while, and they didn't have much competition to get them.
Without former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on the stage, Pawlenty came across as a serious presidential candidate. He hit Obama hard, but gave him credit for directing the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He was substantive and informed. And he managed to introduce himself to viewers by talking about how he grew up in a blue-collar meatpacking town in a family of union members.
And without Donald Trump on the stage, Cain assumed the mantle of the straight-talking successful businessman who can fix the mess Washington has got the country in. He was hazy on details, and is the longest of long shots to win. But for now he can send a message: Washington politicians are a disgrace, and it's going to take an outsider to tell it like it is and clean the place up.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum took on the role of social conservative, but in a year when polls show Republican voters are focused on the economy, his message came across a bit flat at times.
The other two contenders gave the debate a big-tent feel for a little crowd. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian making his third presidential bid, explained why he supports legalizing drugs, including heroin, and opposes federal laws banning gay marriage. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson defended why he supports abortion rights (and complained he was being ignored by debate moderators).
Fox News anchor Bret Baier, who moderated the debate, first focused on foreign policy, pressing the contenders on whether the killing of Osama bin Laden bolstered President Obama's foreign policy stature. He quoted Pawlenty as saying previously that Obama was "weak," and asked "does he still look weak today?"
Pawlenty praised Obama for the raid that led to bin Laden's death, but said it wasn't a defining moment.
"He did a good job. I tip my cap to him in that moment," Pawlenty said. "But that moment is not the sum total of his decisions on America's foreign policy."
He also implied Obama was a hypocrite, suggesting the same interrogation techniques Obama so harshly criticized in the 2008 campaign may have actually led to bin Laden's capture and killing. "He should be asked about that," Pawlenty said.
Santorum was more blunt, saying whatever foreign policy successes Obama has achieved have come because of "a continuation of Bush policies." On new issues under his watch, whether it's the Middle East or Syria or Iran, Santorum said of the President, "he's gotten it wrong every time."
Baier and the other Fox anchors who asked questions -- Chris Wallace, Juan Williams and Shannon Bream -- kept the debate flowing with quick questions on a wide spectrum of issues, from Pakistan to gas prices and the debt ceiling.
The economy was the big issue, which isn't a surprise since polls show that's what voters care most about. Again, the contenders took aim at the President.
"His biggest vulnerability will be the economy," Paul said. "He hasn't dealt with that because he doesn't understand the business cycle."
"The one thing the president can do is establish a real energy independence plan," Cain said. "We have all the resources we need in this country to establish energy independence if we had real leadership."
Only a small portion of the debate was on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Paul struck a libertarian tone, defending his opposition to federal laws banning gay marriage by saying it's not a problem for the federal government.
And Santorum took the opposite position, shoring up his role as the true social conservative on the stage. He also took at shot at Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is weighing whether to enter the race and has called for a "truce" on social issues.
"Anybody that would suggest we call a truce on moral issues doesn't understand what America is all about," Santorum said.
But then Fox's Williams ended that line of questioning: "I want to get this debate back to what's the number one issue for voters in this country, and that's jobs."
The Fox anchors also asked the five about their biggest vulnerabilities. Although it seemed like a tough line of questions, it also gave them a chance to explain their positions largely uninterrupted and get them on record.
Pawlenty, for example, was asked about his support for cap and trade when he was Minnesota governor, which he now opposes. He didn't beat around the bush.
"I was wrong. It was a mistake, and I'm sorry. It's ham-fisted, and it's harmful to the economy," he said, adding that people in executive positions are bound to make a mistake in their careers. "I just admit it. I don't try to duck it and bob it and weave it. I look the American people in the eye, and say, 'I've made a mistake.'"
The debate also touched on the contenders who didn't show up -- with the Fox anchors asking the contenders for their views on the no-shows and their policies.
Most were gracious, although before the debate several took aim at those who didn't show -- with some indirect barbs at Romney. Unlike some of the others, who haven't decided whether to run, Romney has know for two years he will be in the 2012 race.
Santorum said those who sit out now could end up hurting the party.
"You don't end up with the best candidates that way," said Santorum, explaining that "whoever is nominated has to win everywhere."
Earlier in the afternoon, Pawlenty said Republican contenders have to get off the "sidelines" and that it was "later than people think."
"Those of us who think we have the answer to get [the nation] back on track need to offer that up," Pawlenty said. "President Obama is going to be difficult to beat, he's going to raise a billion dollars, and he's a gifted campaigner, so we need to get off the sidelines and make our case to the American people."
As the one candidate here who is considered a possible top-tier candidate, most observers thought Pawlenty had the most to gain -- and lose -- in tonight's debate. If he performed well, he would immediately increase his profile and credibility. If he stumbled, he could be dealing with those headlines for the rest of the campaign.
Pawlenty advisers said they didn't believe he was running a risk, and that the national attention to his message was paramount.
Pawlenty, though, acknowledged his appearance with four wild card candidates was possibly risky, but said a presidential debate is a presidential debate.
"If you're going to run and offer yourself as a candidate for president of the United States, you can't duck, bob, weave, hide, you've got to show up, take the questions, share your visions, stand in there," he said. "This is not tiddlywinks or beanbags, we've got to get at it."