Nikki Haley peruses 1st District field

Gov. Nikki Haley attended the debate Thursday.

All but one of the 16 Republicans vying in their party’s 1st Congressional District primary fielded more than a dozen questions Thursday and parted ways on several major issues.

Earlier forums have taken the same amount of time, about two hours, but got around to posing as few as two questions for the field, or allowed only two candidates to answer, skipping over the rest.

Moderator Robert New of the Charleston’s Propeller Club forced the hopefuls to do something most politicians often can’t or won’t — give a very brief answer.

About 150 people, many from the Lowcountry’s port community showed up, as did Gov. Nikki Haley, who has remained neutral in the primary so far. Her reaction when it was over? “A good time,” she said.

Candidates did their best to single out their own personal tie to Charleston’s port.

Tim Larkin was the only GOP hopeful absent, and the rest agreed on some issues, such as their universal desire not to see the nation’s budget debate postponed yet again.

They also agreed they would not support another increase in the federal debt ceiling, that the Hurricane Sandy relief bill was passed with too much pork and that the nation ideally would have no minimum wage.

When all candidates also agreed that the Federal Reserve should be audited, Keith Blandford, a Libertarian-Republican who has sought the seat two times before stressing the fed audit issue, said, “That makes four years of this worth it.”

But they differed on many others. Only engineer Jeff King and former Charleston County Councilman Curtis Bostic indicated clear support for instant background checks for gun purchases.

And the candidates split pretty evenly on whether they would support raising Social Security’s retirement age.

Only state Rep. Peter McCoy, state Sen. Larry Grooms and engineer Ric Bryant indicated they would support more federal money for renourishing Folly Beach. Most also said they would not support any more federal dollars for Clemson University’s wind turbine operation in North Charleston.

And many candidates still managed to dodge some questions. Asked if across-the-board cuts were better than no cuts at all, many said only that they preferred to see spending cuts prioritized, especially to protect the military.

The candidates also split over whether they would have voted for John Boehner as majority leader, with former Gov. Mark Sanford, Shawn Pinkston, Jonathan Hoffman, Bryant and state Reps. Andy Patrick and Chip Limehouse saying they would have.

“Who was the alternative?” Limehouse asked, adding that those who voted against Boehner “just took your effectiveness as a congressman off the table, and you have hurt your district.”

McCoy said Boehner “represents one of the massive issues we have in Washington, D.C., and that’s the career politician.”

They split somewhat on foreign aid but generally agreed that Israel deserved it much more than Pakistan. Charleston School Board member Elizabeth Moffly said, “I really think we need to quit nation building.”

Asked about whether cruise ships calling on Charleston should plug into shoreside power, many doubted that the environmental benefit was worth the cost. Charleston lawyer John Kuhn recounted a tale from Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who once learned half his friends were for an issue and the other half against it and concluded, “I am for my friends.”

The question of whether President Barack Obama should use drones to kill U.S. citizens fighting against U.S. forces overseas also created divisions. Grooms was among those voicing concern, saying, “The collateral damage is just too great.”

Former Dorchester County Sheriff Ray Nash said he also didn’t support such strikes without “due process.”

New’s staccato approach did get a little pushback.

Asked to say yes or no as to whether they would support money for deepening ships’ approach to Savannah’s harbor, Sanford called it “an absurd question,” adding, “I think some of the realities of the governing process is they can’t be boiled down to simple yes or no questions.”

When Charleston teacher and businessman Teddy Turner was asked if he would encourage Haley to accept more Medicaid money, as Republican governors in other states have done, Turner replied, “It’s hard to answer these in sound bites. You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. I’d have to take a pass.”

Asked who they thought is the Republicans’ best choice for president in 2016, many wavered, but those getting the most mentions were Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former S.C. Rep. Tim Scott, whose recent appointment to the U.S. Senate created this race.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

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