If the purpose of Fox News is to promote Republicans, the opening debate of campaign 2012 did precious little to advance the cause. The event was like a party that all the cool kids boycotted, leaving only an oddball assortment of nerds to whip up their own brand of fun.
The most normal-seeming person on the stage was former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, though in his case normal is synonymous with boring. Pawlenty comes across like he ought to be selling automobile insurance, not running the country. He did himself no harm in this debate, but other than expanding his name recognition, it is doubtful that he gained much traction.
Ex-Senator Rick Santorum seems like a character out of the Salem Witch Trials: the hectoring, sanctimonious prig who can't wait to torch the infidels. Santorum undoubtedly has his supporters, but how can someone so patently unlikeable hope to win over the millions of voters needed to clinch the nomination?
Ideologically, the evening's two most interesting participants were Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, both of whom staked out positions rarely, if ever, expressed on the Fox News Channel. Like Paul, Johnson has an extremely peculiar persona, but he is admirably clear in his philosophy -- and both men attracted fervent support from the crowd.
In some ways Herman Cain was the biggest beneficiary of the night, just by being invited. He wisely positioned himself as the anti-politician on the stage, and got off several good lines. This won't be enough to raise Cain into the top tier of GOP candidates, but it keeps him in the game.
Bottom line: Republican voters looking for a candidate to fall in love with will have to keep shopping around. The happiest viewers of this first debate are the folks at Obama reelection headquarters.