It's like date night without the date.
Tonight, the five GOP presidential candidates -- Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, and Herman Cain -- squared off in South Carolina.
Here's my running diary.
9:03 PM: T-Paw thanks his fellow rivals for "showin' up tonight", which is a not-so-veiled attack on those who didn't (nearly everyone).
9:05 PM: Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, Gary Johnson, and Ron Paul all say they'd release pic of the dead bin Laden. Herman Cain demurs.
The photo thing has become the new way to prove toughness, because as Sarah Palin helpfully explained, releasing the photo is "part of the mission."
9:05 PM: Santorum says the only good decisions Obama's made have been continuations of Bush policies.
He ticks off the list -- keeping Gitmo open, staying in Iraq, surging in Afghanistan, you know, small things.
9:06 PM: Ron Paul gets the first applause of the night.
"We went to Afghanistan to get him, and he hasn't been there. Now that he's killed, boy, it is wonderful time now for this country to now reassess it and get the troops out of Afghanistan and end that war that hasn't help us and hasn't helped anybody in the middle east."
9:09 PM: Gary Johnson says he was against going into Iraq, in the first place, and thus, sets himself apart from Hillary Clinton.
9:10 PM: I can't think of a more fair, likable person (besides Dick Van Dyke) than Chris Wallace. He's warm without being cheesy, affable without being officious, and his chuckle is better than your best laugh.
9:11 PM: Rick Santorum wins the Martin Luther Award for "Best Reference to The Protestant Reformation While Talking About Islam."
"I'm not anti-Islam, first. What I'm doing is just recognizing the reality, and the reality is that the version of Islam that is practiced in the middle east, that is growing and spreading is one that is not going to be one that we can deal with very easily.
It's one that requires -- as a Catholic, this is a tough term to say -- reformation."
9:13 PM: First split screen of the 2012 debate season! It's Tim Pawlenty, looking toward Ron Paul as the doctor replies to a question about Gitmo.
T-Paw is wearing an orange sherbet tie.
9:14 PM: Ron Paul blasts torture. The crowd cheers for just the second time tonight. The first was when he said we should get out of Afghanistan.
Clearly, the audience isn't a realistic composite of the South Carolina primary electorate.
9:16 PM: T-Paw, Cain, and Santorum all say they'd support waterboarding under certain circumstances. Gary Johnson and Ron Paul wouldn't.
9:20 PM: Pawlenty finally brings up his meat-packing origins.
"The meat packing industry handles the slaughtering, processing and distribution of animals such as cattle, pigs, sheep and other livestock."
In other words, T-Paw grew up in Tim Burton's adaptation of Babe.
9:22 PM: T-Paw is asked about RomneyCare. He answers.
"Gov. Romney is not here to defend himself, so I'm not going to pick on him or the position he took in Massachusetts."
Then he attacks ObamaCare and praises his own state health care plan. In other words, he gives Romney a pass, which is smart.
The candidates don't need to start going negative now, and RomneyCare's reputation precedes itself. Leave the attacks to Cato, the WSJ, and other conservative thought leaders.
9:25 PM: Ron Paul says he's against federal tort reform, because it's a states-rights issue. Interestingly enough, his state's governor -- Rick Perry -- also opposes federal tort reform for the same reason.
9:31 PM: Santorum says ObamaCare is the most important issue in the election (He's said this before, btw.) Mitt Romney's fortune might hinge on the accuracy of that claim.
9:35 PM: Gary Johnson interrupts a discussion of the fair tax, to ask for the "fair Johnson", which isn't what it sounds like, but is instead just a plea for more questions.
9:36 PM: If I had a six year-old daughter, she'd be looking at me quizzically as T-Paw talks and say "But Daddy, why's he so mad?"
9:39 PM: Herman Cain supports the Arizona immigration law.
9:40 PM: Santorum and T-Paw subscribe to the same theory of presidential gravitas: the straighter you stand, the stiffer your upper lip, the more presidential you look.
If that really worked, Launchpad McQuack would be president.
9:43 PM: Herman Cain opposes intervention in Libya and Syria.
9:46 PM: T-Paw calls the U.N. a "pathetic organization." Among adjectives he's used tonight -- "outrageous," "preposterous", "pathetic."
9:47 PM: Fox has been very fair in its questioning. They haven't taken quotes out of context, but they haven't been sycophantic. Also, Bret Baier seems so nice and harmless, he could ask the Queen where she hid Diana's body, and get invited for a second cup of tea.
9:49 PM: Super-telling moment. The moderator ask the candidates about Donald Trump before Sarah Palin.
9:55 PM: Ron Paul wants the government to get out of the marriage business.
"I have my standards, but I shouldn't have to impose my standards on others. Others have standards, and they have no right to impose their marriage standards on me."
9:57 PM: The pro-choice Gary Johnson says he won't get too many pro-life votes.
Btw, that's the big difference between a front-runner and a long-shot.
A pro-choice, front-runner would try to convince pro-lifers that he's actually pro-life in spirit, but just thinks abortion should be legal (probably) but rare (absolutely), and that his job is changing the hearts and minds of voters first, and that Ronald Reagan was a great president and Osama bin Laden's death photo should be released.
9:59 PM: Fox lobs a softball so big that Miguel Cabrera could hit it, while driving back from the club.
The moderators ask him about his position on Mitch Daniels' call for a truce on social issues.
"I think that anybody that would suggest that we call a truce on social issues doesn't understand what America is all about."
10:00 PM: Juan Williams says voters #1 issue is jobs. Which is why it took one hour for the first question about it to pop up.
10:07 PM: T-Paw admits his past support for cap-and-trade is a "clunker." That's been his common line -- and he seems to actually enjoy saying it, because it implicitly evokes the other candidates' clunkers.
As has been documented, most have bigger ones than he, which means he can kind of turn cap-and-trade talk into a plus for his candidacy (in a strange type of way).
10:12 PM: Ron Paul talks about heroin to make a point about limited government. Audience cheers wildly, Chris Wallace chuckles:
"I never thought heroin would get applause here in South Carolina."
10:12 PM: Wallace then effortlessly moves to Gary Johnson:
"Gov. Johnson, you say we should not only legalize and tax marijuana, you admit that you smoked it when it was still illegal in your state of New Mexico."
10:22 PM: Wow, a lightning round about the "potential candidates who are not here." Fox puts Romney, Palin, Bachmann, Gingrich, and Huckabee in that group, but Palin is missing.
Lightning rounds are always fun. Quick question, quick answer. Maybe -- instead of water-boarding -- we can start doing lightning rounds with detainees.
Anyway, Baier to Herman Cain.
BAIER: Mr. Cain, you supported Gov. Romney in 2008. What did you see in him back then that led you to support his campaign?
CAIN: Back then, I saw his business experience, which I concluded meant that he understood how to create jobs and, like then and now, the creation of jobs is one of the most critical issues that we have in this country. That's why I supported him.
I'm running now, instead of supporting Mr. Romney, because he did not win. So I'm going to try my time.
Next, Wallace to Pawlenty.
WALLACE: Gov. Pawlenty, you've been campaigning for months, especially in Iowa. Mike Huckabee is still considering whether to even run, and he's already beating you quite badly in polls -- even in Iowa.
Sir, if he gets in this race, are you out of business?
PAWLENTY: I love the Huck. I know him, he's been a colleague of mine, and a friend, and I know Janet, his spouse. He's a wonderful man, and he's got a big heart, and he's got a lot of talent, and he cares about this country, and I appreciate him very much.
But my views and his views might not always line up. I think they mostly do on many things, but no, I'm planning on being in this -- if I decide to do this -- to win it, in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and everywhere else.
And I'm still not very well-known outside of Minnesota, and as I get better known, I'm getting more and more support, so I think the momentum is on my side.
Then, Shannon Bream to Ron Paul.
BREAM: Congressman Paul, a lot of folks consider you the founding father of the tea party movement. Now Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has founded and heads up the tea party caucus in the House.
Has she eclipsed you?
PAUL: Well, she's not here tonight, so she hasn't quite done that.
We attend tea party meetings together, and of course, the tea party movement was started in the last campaign.... I don't feel threatened.
Juan Williams to Rick Santorum:
WILLIAMS: Sen. Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- after pulling out of this SC debate -- appears ready to announce his candidacy next week in Georgia.
As a social conservative, Senator, do you have a problem with Gingrich's past, personal behavior?
SANTORUM: I think that you should be very careful about how you deal with those issues, because all of us make mistakes, and just because we make mistakes, we shouldn't be, at all, inhibited from going out and saying what's the truth.
Just because you fall short, doesn't mean you can't stand up and say 'This is the right way to do it. I didn't always live up to that, but this is the truth.'
But there are some who like to cower people, like to bully people from standing up for things that are important in society that we personally fall short on, so I say to Newt Gingrich: Stand up for the truth and let the chips fall where they may.
Finally, Baier to Gary Johnson.
BAIER: Gov. Johnson, if you had a reality TV show, like Donald Trump does, what would it be?
JOHNSON: I'm stumped, I'm really stumped.
You know, I'm an active guy, so reality TV would be, for me, to spread this whole notion of physical activity and competition and the notion that we should all live in the present.
I don't think it would be Donald Trump's show. I don't think it would be Sarah Palin's show, either, crawling on her hands and knees up the ice in Alaska.
10:27 PM: Closing remarks.
Some people thought Pawlenty risked diminishing himself by associating himself with the longshots. I think he did fine on that score, and actually helped himself. He came across as the most electable guy on the stage.
But he's still struggling at getting his persona right. He just doesn't wear anger well, but it's increasingly becoming his daily suit. And he's an overalls guy. Right, meat-packing?
I don't think he's trying to come across as angry. He's just trying to seem strong, but it looks angry. Kind of like that cover to his book.
As for the rest, Ron Paul wasn't about to cede his space to Gary Johnson, Rick Santorum was reliably punchy, and Herman Cain underwhelmed. I know Frank Lutz's focus group raved about him, but I thought we'd see more "Cain" and less "Herman".
Note: I'm off today. Have a good weekend!