(GREENVILLE, S.C.) -- With some of the biggest names and biggest personalities in the Republican primary taking a pass on attending, the first Republican primary debate of the 2012 campaign was a rather sedate and polite affair.
On stage at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina for the Fox News/South Carolina Republican party debate were five relatively unknown Republican candidates: former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
Despite the best efforts of the Fox moderators to try and create some sparks, the candidates stayed away from attacking each other -- or even those who weren’t on stage.
When Cain was asked why he, as a supporter of former Gov. Mitt Romney in 2008, was running against him now, Cain replied, “He didn’t win so I’m gonna try my time.”
When Pawlenty was asked whether he was worried about Mike Huckabee beating him in Iowa, he said, “I love the Huck.”
The hosts tried to get Santorum, a well-known social conservative, to tee off on former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s messy personal life, but Santorum didn’t take the bait.
“Just because you fall short doesn’t mean you can’t stand up and say this is the right way,” Santorum said.
It was Pawlenty, however, who had the most to gain -- or lose -- by his performance at the debate. Despite his low standing in the polls, Pawlenty is seen as the candidate most able to position himself as the challenger to the current leader in GOP polls, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
In the end, Pawlenty played it safe. He didn’t gain anything, but he didn’t lose anything either.
He kept his aim on President Obama’s policies on everything from health care to Libya to the economy. He even used a question about his own liabilities in the primary, his support for cap and trade legislation as governor, as an opportunity to present himself as a straight shooter.
Calling it a mistake, as he’s done for a while now, Pawlenty said, “I just admit. I don’t try to duck it, bob it, weave it, try to explain it away. I’m just telling you I made a mistake.”
Still, he wasn’t the most charismatic candidate on stage. Nor was he particularly aggressive. When asked to comment on Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts, Pawlenty demurred, saying, “Governor Romney isn’t here to defend himself so I’m not going to pick on him. “
But for Pawlenty, who says he sees this race as a marathon and not a sprint, it’s all about staying on pace and conserving his energy for the many miles yet to come.
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio