MYRTLE BEACH — Five days before the South Carolina primary, the five remaining Republican hopefuls tried Monday to woo its likely voters, and four of them tried to shake Mitt Romney from his perch atop the field.
The presidential debate began 10 hours after former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman bowed out of the race and endorsed Romney. And it began with a bang, as moderator and Fox News host Bret Baier asked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich if his recent criticism of Romney’s business record clashed with Gingrich’s earlier calls for Republicans to play nice.
“I don’t think raising questions is a prerogative only of Barack Obama,” Gingrich said. “I raised questions that I think are legitimate questions, some of which came straight out of Wall Street Journal articles. … That’s part of what a campaign is about, raising questions.”
Romney praised Gingrich’s work as speaker and defended his work at Bain Capital.
“Some of the businesses we invested in weren’t successful and lost jobs,” he said. “We invested in well over 100 different businesses.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has called Romney’s work at Bain Capital “vulture capitalism,” said he visited Georgetown, where Bain owned and closed a steel mill.
“A lot of people lost jobs there,” Perry said.
Romney said Georgetown Steel’s problem — and those of about 40 other steel plants — was caused by other nations dumping steel here.
Perry also called on Romney to release his income tax records before Saturday’s primary. Romney later said he might release them in April.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul said his negative ads don’t cross a line if they expose an opponent’s voting record. He said his only problem with a negative ad on former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was “I couldn’t get all the things in I wanted to say.”
Santorum blasted Romney, not Paul, for negative ads run by a Romney super PAC, noting that Santorum was being blamed for supporting the right of former convicts to vote after they finish probation. He noted Massachusetts, when Romney was governor there, allowed felons to vote while on parole.
“Why didn’t you try to change that when you were governor of Massachusetts?” he asked.
Gingrich also criticized Romney for saying he has no control over a super PAC working on his behalf, saying it “apparently makes you wonder how much influence he would have as president.”
The debate touched on South Carolina-specific themes, such as jobs (the unemployment rate here is 9.8 percent, one of the nation’s highest); Boeing’s dispute with the National Labor Relations Board; and its controversial voter ID and immigration laws. Perry said South Carolina “is at war with the federal government, with this administration.”
The questioners also were mindful that Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Fox News contributor Juan Williams, who is black, asked Gingrich if his statements that poor kids lack work ethic and that black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps, are insulting to all Americans, especially blacks.
“No, I don’t see that,” Gingrich replied. “More people were put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”
The two-hour-long debate also gave Paul a chance to blast the nation’s policy for holding enemy combatants without a trial; a chance for Romney to talk about going elk hunting since 2007; a chance for Santorum to defend his plan to end the federal tax on U.S. manufacturers; a chance for Perry to vow to secure the U.S.-Mexico border in a year; and a chance for Gingrich to recall how a famous Carolinian, President Andrew Jackson, would deal with America’s enemies: “Kill them.”
Asked what they thought the lowest federal income tax rate should be, they responded: Gingrich, a 15-percent flat tax; Paul, 0 percent; Perry, a flat tax of 25 percent with deductions for homes and charitable giving; Romney, 25 percent; and Santorum, 28 percent.
Another debate, hosted by CNN and the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, will be held at 8 p.m. Thursday at the North Charleston Coliseum, two days before the primary.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
Each candidate tried to push their individual agendas Monday in the second nationally televised opportunity on the Fox network since Saturday.
Newt Gingrich: Showed a feisty streak and defended the attack campaign against Mitt Romney’s record in business and as a governor. Not pointing out flaws now amounts to “unilateral disarmant” and opens the door for Obama attacks in the fall.
Ron Paul: Again, as in other debates, Paul stuck close to his liberty platform. Pleaded for Republicans to defend the founding ideals of the Constitution, not to become bogged down in foreign wars, and to put homeland America first.
Rick Perry: Did the most to “localize” the primary in S.C. terms. He blasted loss of Romney Bain Capital jobs at Georgetown Steel, and attacked federal lawsuits against the state’s voter ID law, immigration control efforts and Boeing via the NLRB.
Mitt Romney: Tried to be the Teflon candidate versus other candidate barrages. He mostly succeeded and took more shots at Barack Obama than at the primary field, but hesitated when asked if and when he would release his income tax returns.
Rick Santorum: Did little to raise his exposure, partly because questioners concentrated more on Romney, and partly because he could not cut into the exchanges made by the others.
Rick Santorum: National security town hall meeting with Gen. William Boykin at Patriots Point, Mount Pleasant, 9 a.m.; Newberry Hall, Aiken, 11:30 a.m.; the Flight Deck, 2 p.m., Lexington; candidate forum, Columbia Marriott, 5:45 p.m.; and Fuddruckers, Anderson, 8 p.m.
Ron Paul: Statehouse, Columbia, 10 a.m.; Marriott Spartanburg, 2 p.m.; and York County Town Hall, Rock Hill, 4:30 p.m.
Rick Perry: Town hall meeting, VFW, Murrells Inlet, 9:30 a.m.; Florence County GOP, noon; and candidate forum, Columbia Marriott, 5:45 p.m.
Mitt Romney: Florence Civic Center, 8:30 a.m.
Newt Gingrich: Carolinas Hospital System, Florence, 9 a.m.; Art Trails Gallery, Florence, 10 a.m.; Hilton Columbia Center, noon; Phillip's Market, Columbia, 1:30 p.m.; candidate forum, Columbia Marriott, 5:45 p.m.; and USC-Aiken Convocation Center, Aiken, 7:30 p.m.