The first debate of the 2012 presidential season took place last night in Greenville, South Carolina.

If you missed it, you weren’t the only one. Take Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Mitch Daniels, Mike Huckabee, and Michele Bachmann—all no shows. Also absent (or at least withholding coverage) was the Associated Press, who boycotted even their print output after learning that photography of the proceedings would be banned.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty was the only candidate on stage with a foot on the first tier. Rounding out the bunch were two libertarian-minded pols, Representative Ron Paul and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, and two social conservatives, ex-senator Rick Santorum and the little known Herman Cain, a former radio host, regional Federal Reserve official, and pizza company CEO.

Their inclusion surely only made the absence of Buddy Roemer, a former Louisiana congressman and governor, smart his supporters all the more. That’s assuming he has supporters, somewhere—Fox News, host of this debate alongside the South Carolina Republican party, excluded him from on the grounds that his national poll numbers have yet to break one percent. A defensible decision, but the first skirmish in this election’s version of the never satisfyingly resolved chicken-and-egg argument about debate access: How fair is it to expect Roemer, or any other little-known candidate, to meet name recognition requirements without such golden opportunities to have their name become more recognized?

This wasn’t actually supposed to be the first debate—that honor (if playing a hand in stretching out the campaign season can be said to be one) was supposed to go to a Reagan Library/Politico/NBC melee on Tuesday night, cancelled as the thin potential participant line-up became clear, and currently rescheduled for September 7.

But the narrow field didn’t prevent Fox from going ahead, or as promoting the event as an all-caps and “ALL-IMPORTANT DEBATE.” Still, the absent potential-candidates’ spectral presence hung over the proceedings. Juan Williams cattily pointed out that Gingrich had agreed to come, and then changed his plans. Early in the night, Bret Baier, who did master of ceremony duties, promised that he would get “these” (note the emphasis) candidates to talk about the distant opposition. As promised, after coming back from the last commercial break the debate hosts asked Ron Paul if Michele Bachmann was slurping up his Tea Party support; asked Tim Pawlenty if he thought he could beat Huckabee (whose FOX perch went unmentioned) in Iowa; and asked Johnson if he were to star in a reality show (like Donald Trump does—get it?) what it would be.

Precious little of substance was discussed. Cain parried questions about what he thought the U.S. should do in Afghanistan with the very definition of a non-answer, saying that he planned to make a plan once in office and was privy to the government’s experts and intelligence. One question directed at Pawlenty—and given his relatively privileged prospects, it would be especially worth asking him something concrete—was about how he thought Gingrich’s marital history might play with voters. The most dogged exchange was between Pawlenty and Chris Wallace, on the former governor’s former support for cap-and-trade. Pawlenty’s muddled answer left it unclear if he was defending or apologizing for his record. But more importantly, Wallace’s questions failed to get at what Pawlenty would do about global warming given that he’s now opposed to such a pollution credits exchange—or even if he still acknowledges the overwhelming evidence supporting anthropogenic climate change.

In the end, this debate will be remembered for drawing a starting line for the 2012 season. In his closing statement, Santorum claimed that the thing that set him apart from the others on the stage was that he had really led, adding that he had “the arrows in my back from the mainstream media to prove it.”

Those were the first bars of the press-resentment refrain that’s played prominently in Republican presidential campaigns throughout the modern era, and to my ears, were a sure sign that the campaign really has started.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.