Herman Cain, April 29, 2011, in Manchester , N.H.
Herman Cain, April 29, 2011, in Manchester , N.H. Jim Cole/AP
Frank Luntz, the Republican Party's erstwhile message-meister, was amazed.
He said he'd never seen anything like it.
"Something very special happened this evening," Luntz told the Fox News audience that had tuned in Thursday night to see the first GOP debate of the presidential season.
And that special thing that occurred wasn't what candidate-in-waiting Tim Pawlenty had hoped would be the dominant narrative coming out of a debate in which he was considered the only "top tier" potential candidate participating.
Luntz's big news?
His focus group of Republican South Carolinians, reaction dials in hand, proclaimed Herman Cain, former Godfather's Pizza chief, the night's big winner.
Yes, Herman Cain, whose straight-up delivery - honed on his radio talk show in Georgia - won over the locals, many of whom expressed annoyance that leading would-be candidates (they were talking about you, Mitt Romney) skipped the night's give-and-take.
They - and their party chairwoman - pointedly noted that since 1980 no Republican has won the GOP nomination without winning the early-in-the-season South Carolina primary.
Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, was center stage. He was flanked by Cain, previous presidential candidate Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former New Mexixo Gov. Gary Johnson, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
The crowd was boisterous, booing Johnson's stated support for a woman's legal right to an abortion until a fetus is viable, and cheering when Santorum proclaimed no truce on social issues. And the hall was also liberally salted with Paul's Tea Party fans, lustily cheering his libertarian agenda.
Pundits quickly weighed in, some saying that Pawlenty did just fine. But how fine a night could it have been when the most enduring debate images of the former Minnesota governor were these?:
His failure to directly answer a question about whether he equates creationism with evolution. And his abject apology for once supporting proposals that would cap greenhouse gas emissions.
(When Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace said he was going to play a clip of an ad Pawlenty made endorsing such caps, the almost-candidate could be seen responding: "Do we have to?")
Boos rippled through the audience when the ad was played.
"I made a mistake," Pawlenty said, inviting audience members who are "perfect" to come up on stage.
The Cain effect will likely be fleeting. The debate seemed an odd moment in time, with no Romney, no Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, Jon Huntsman, Mitch Daniels or any of the other bigger names making noises about running.
And Pawlenty may find other opportunities to get traction.
In fact, he seemed more "presidential" post debate when being grilled by conservative Fox host Sean Hannity, who was looking for a line of questioning that would lead Pawlenty to criticize President Obama on the killing and burial at sea of Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
The source of Hannity's current outrage? That the terrorist's body had been treated in accordance with Muslim tradition, and the at-sea ceremony translated into Arabic.
Pawlenty pushed back.
"I think we did the right thing" considering the sensitivities, he said, acknowledging that a leader has to think of strategic and tactical goals, especially in situations where actions could inflame others and "put our citizens in harm's way."
Look for Pawlenty and others next in New Hampshire on June 13 in a debate sponsored by CNN and WMUR.