The Republican presidential candidates debated in South Carolina last night. Mitt Romney tried to secure his lead while the other contenders sought to chip away at it. Every Republican nominee since 1980 has won the South Carolina primary, making it widely viewed as the last chance to stop Romney’s momentum.
The debate audience seemed to favor Romney, though Newt Gingrich won the loudest applauses by far. A remarkable number of attendees supported Ron Paul, admiring his consistency, integrity and willingness to dramatically slash the budget and size of government. A few of his supporters frankly admitted that his national security views are flawed, but argued that the crisis at home is a greater threat than anything abroad. It is clear that, for better or for worse, libertarianism has become a significant force in the Republican Party.
The biggest applause of the night came when Juan Williams forcefully challenged Gingrich, accusing him of “belittling” people and asking him if he could see why some of his statements could be offensive to African-Americans. He pushed back, defending his position that schools should hire students to do work, claiming that one New York City janitor would cost the same as 30 or so students. He explained that it would make kids less likely to drop out, would teach work ethic and “money is a good thing if you are poor.” He vowed to continue to state “facts that are uncomfortable” and put forth similar ideas. The audience roared.
Mitt Romney’s most popular moment came on national security. He responded to a discussion of the raid that killed Bin Laden by saying, “They declared war on us. We go anywhere they are and kill them.” He was booed once when he said that he would have signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which is controversial because it permits the military to indefinitely detain American citizens in the U.S. on suspicion based on associating with terrorists. Santorum responded that such American citizens should have the ability to bring their case to federal judges and the audience clapped.
Rick Santorum’s strongest moment was when he connected values to prosperity. He cited a 2009 Brookings Institution study that found that if you don’t have children outside of marriage, work and graduate high school, you are much more likely to succeed. The study, he said, showed that 77% of those who meet those criteria have above-average income. On the other hand, only 2% of those in poverty don’t fall into those categories.
The statement from Ron Paul that elicited the most positive reaction was when he argued he isn’t cutting defense spending because he doesn’t believe funding overseas military deployments qualify as “defense.” After mentioning the $1 billion price tag on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, he said, “You consider that defense, I consider that waste.” He won further applause when he said that the other candidates are inconsistent conservatives because they feel domestic spending is wrong but approve of overseas spending. He also was cheered when he said that he’d eliminate the income tax and the “inflation tax.”
Ron Paul, however, was also the most loudly booed. He defended his opposition to the raid that killed Bin Laden in Pakistan by saying the “more proper way” would have been to work with the Pakistanis so he was handed over like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was. He compared the raid to China bombing the U.S. because of a Chinese dissident living here. Gingrich responded that the analogy is “utterly irrational.”