GREENVILLE -- What the South's first 2012 presidential debate lacked in high-profile candidates was more than made up for in lively exchanges about everything from radical Islam to legalizing heroin.
Five lesser-known candidates took the stage in Greenville's Peace Center for a 90-minute question-and-answer session Thursday night before a crowd of South Carolina Republicans and a national Fox News audience.
The big development leading into the debate was the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden, and Fox News' moderators first asked former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty if he stuck by his earlier comment that President Barack Obama was "weak."
Pawlenty said Obama did a good job with bin Laden, and "I tip my cap to him in that moment ... but he's made a number of other decisions relating to our security here and around the world that I don't agree with."
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson said the United States should now leave Afghanistan. Paul noted that bin Laden wasn't even found there, though former Sen. Rick Santorum later noted that bin Laden's capture wouldn't have been possible without the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Paul and Johnson also were the only ones who said they would not support waterboarding -- an enhanced interrogation technique that simulates drowning -- under any circumstances.
Santorum, from Pennsylvania, said that while Obama deserves credit for last weekend's tactical success in killing bin Laden, it was President George
W. Bush who made the strategic decision to go after him.
Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain said the nation's policy in Afghanistan was vague. Cain took pride in his being the only candidate on stage who is trying to make the White House his first office held.
"All the people in Congress now have held public office before. Where'd that get ya?," Cain said.
Paul was asked about his previous comments that states should have the right to legalize drugs or prostitution. He said that the issue is liberty, not giving people the green light.
"If we legalized heroin tomorrow, everybody's going to use heroin? How many people here would use heroin if it was legal? I bet nobody. 'Oh yeah, I need the government to take heroin,' " he said.
Pawlenty jumped on his first chance to criticize Obama and the National Labor Relations Board for its lawsuit against Boeing for building a plant in North Charleston, calling the decision "preposterous."
Santorum was asked whether Republican presidential hopefuls should declare a truce on moral issues so they could focus more on fiscal ones.
"I think anybody who suggests that we should call a truce on moral issues doesn't understand what America is all about," he replied, adding that rights come from God, "the first of which is life, the second of which is liberty."
Moderator Brett Baier joked before the debate that he knew South Carolina was "a right-to-clap state," a pun on the state's right-to-work status. He also asked the audience to withhold its applause to the end, which was largely ignored.
The enthusiasm came even though better-known candidates were not on the stage. They include former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Earlier in the day, Gov. Nikki Haley fired up about 200 members of the Greenville tea party, giving them a brief address that underscored the importance of the 2012 presidential election.
Haley said she often is asked why South Carolina seems to kick off the presidential campaign. "One, we're loud. Two, we're proud, and three, we're not afraid to talk about it," she said.