What would you ask them? Lowcountry voters describe the issues that matter most

Paula Wilkinson (left) holds her granddaughter Chloe Drenkhahn, 4, at home in Summerville and talks about education with her landlord Amy Sullivan (right) and daughter Leah Drenkhahn.

How would you have handled PBS anchor Jim Lehrer's job during last week's presidential debate?

What if you got to ask the questions?

The Post and Courier asked Lowcountry voters what they wanted to know from President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The interests were diverse, ranging from health care to education, defense and spending. Still, job creation was a dominant theme here as it is most places in the country.

1. When Summerville mother Leah Drenkhahn, 30, heard Romney bring up Big Bird and talk about cutting the government's PBS subsidy, she was shocked. The stay-home mother of three knows that in addition to being a public broadcaster, PBS provides a daytime education function too, which has helped develop her children aged 4, 9, and 10.

Her question: What will you do to strengthen public education?

Context: Education in America largely lies with states and local school districts. Both men say they are strong supporters of the public schools, though little nuances show the differences. Romney's education platform mirrors traditional Republican themes of vouchers and allowing transfers to better-performing schools. Unlike some of his GOP primary foes, he does not call for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. Instead, he favors shrinking it or folding it into another agency.

Obama has long spoken of preserving education funding, including for the federal Department of Education's “Race to the Top” program, a grants competition that encourages and rewards states for creating plans of innovation, reform and improving student achievement.

Obama contends that he took a large step toward supporting public education in his stimulus packages that included $100 billion for education needs at the state level. The White House contends 160,000 teacher jobs were saved as a result.

Romney, not a backer of teacher unions, does back the notion of published report cards that will hold schools, districts and states responsible for results.

2. North Charleston resident Patricia Arnold, 22, graduated from West Ashley High School and lost her job at a Charleston hotel recently when it closed, a job that she had held for seven months.

Arnold said she ultimately plans to become a nurse, but it has been difficult juggling school and a job. She recently visited the Lockwood Workforce Center in downtown Charleston to try to find a job that will get her back on her feet and ultimately allow her to go back to school.

Her question: What will you do to create more jobs?

Context: Everyone agrees that the nation's economy and jobs picture are the greatest issue in this race and likely will remain that way, despite Friday's jobs report showing the nation's unemployment rate has dipped under 8 percent.

It's also one of the most complex, because it will be shaped by federal spending, taxation and regulations as well as trade, labor and education policies to things beyond a president's control, such as the course of the world economy and peace. There's even a lively political debate over whether the government can create jobs.

In broad strokes, Romney has vowed to reduce taxes, federal spending, regulation, and government programs while increasing trade, energy production, human capital and labor flexibility.

Obama has emphasized eliminating tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, and he has pointed to his record in saving the nation's auto industry, reforming Wall Street and reviving the nation's manufacturing sector. He also has acknowledged that more needs to be done.

3. Morgan Regalado, a mechanical engineer who lives in Mount Pleasant, considered himself lucky for being able to find a job after moving here from Hawaii. But he has a lot of friends who have not been as fortunate.

Regalado heard Romney and Obama talk about fossil fuels such as oil and coal, as well as about green energy, but he did not hear specifics about a national energy plan that would balance those energy sources. “If you could find a happy medium between those two, it would bolster the economy and jobs,” he said.

His question: How, specifically, will your energy plan create jobs?

Context: Both candidates have energy plans that offer support, to some degree, for developing traditional energy sources, such as coal, oil and gas, with newer, cleaner sources. The difference is in the details.

Obama has noted that the U.S. natural gas production is at an all-time high, and domestic oil production is up too. He supports opening up 75 percent of the nation's oil and gas resources in the Gulf and Arctic. Meanwhile, Obama has noted that since he took office, the nation has generated twice as much electricity from wind and solar, and federal investments in such clean energy and energy efficiency have created almost 250,000 jobs, while the coal sector also is employing more than at any time since 1996.

Romney said his energy plan would create 3 million jobs, including 1 million in manufacturing. He would streamline permitting for coal and oil exploration and would approve the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposal now in limbo, that would run from Canada's oil sands region to several points in the United States. Romney has been highly critical of Obama's investment in Solyndra, a solar-panel producer that has gone bankrupt, and vowed to focus federal spending more on research and development.

4. Joe Benton, 77, a retired teacher from Mount Pleasant, had a different take on the concerns over a lack of jobs. While many are looking for work, Benton noted that many jobs are open because the employer cannot find qualified applicants.

Benton said the nation has systematically ignored vocational training, and much of the higher education out there is at such a high cost, particularly when there's not a clear connection about how it will prepare students for landing a job.

His question: What are the candidates' plans for continuing education for those displaced from their jobs?

Context: The campaign has not featured much talk of education, particularly vocational education. Romney's website claims the federal government poured money into retraining programs, including $18 billion for 47 employment and job-training programs in fiscal year 2009. He noted that these were run by nine federal agencies, and all but three overlap with at least one other program. He called the programs wasteful and chaotic and an example of why federal spending needs to be scaled back and why states and the private sector should be more involved.

Obama's website notes that he has invested in community colleges and career-training programs, while it also notes that Romney cut funding for community colleges in Massachusetts by 17 percent while he was governor, and that the state's tuition was higher than the national average.

5. Air Force veteran Christopher Howell, 45, of Goose Creek, served 25 years in uniform under some severely stressful situations.

The retired master sergeant assembled weaponry for aircraft, serving in posts all around the globe. He reports suffering from post-traumatic stress and even went through double heart-bypass surgery. Applying for Veterans Affairs benefits was easy, he said. The hard part was the waiting, the duplication of forms and the long time it has taken to get those benefits flowing.

His Question: How can you make the process quicker and the VA more efficient?

Context: Both candidates have made appeals to the veterans' vote this year, though neither has been extremely specific on improvements to the process they would like to implement. Obama's White House has tossed around the term of creating “a 21st century VA.”

One Romney change that has surfaced is to suggest that vets be allowed to see professionals from outside of the VA network for some of their needs, such as counseling. The Obama administration's VA leadership does not endorse that idea.

Both also have called for increasing the budget for hiring mental health counselors, largely in response to the growth in post-traumatic stress disorder cases from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing veterans' care is to Congress' automatic 10-year budget cuts that are set take effect in January. By agreement, about half of the total cut figure — nearly $500 billion — will come from defense and national security budgets, an allotment both men oppose.

Romney says that in addition to weakening defense, they could diminish the quality of veterans care, while Obama's camp counters that the higher taxes on the wealthy Republicans oppose would go a long way toward protecting both the military and VA services.

6. Andrea Thomas, a private-practice social worker from West Ashley, has seen what government cuts, even going back as far the Bill Clinton years, have done to Americans at the bottom rung of society.

Pregnant teens, adults seeking counseling and anyone trying to kick substance dependency have seen fewer and fewer treatment avenues available, particularly in the rural parts of America where it's needed most and with fewer providers taking Medicaid. That's a partial snapshot of South Carolina's situation.

Her question: What will you do to address the gap in mental health, counseling and prevention services that society's lowest rung needs?

Context: Thomas' question touches on the nation's so-called “safety net” of social programs. On the stump, Romney has come off as sometimes cold on the matter, like in January when he said, “I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich. They're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”

Their differences on social programs is mainly a product of political philosophy. Obama's pattern has shown a preference to protect the safety net and other federal assistance programs. Romney has favored efforts to dramatically reduce the size, scope and delivery of government.

Much of this comes down to money and where populations are centered. What is a given is that breaks in medical coverage by individuals of all socio-economic backgrounds are common, no matter where you live. The Commonwealth Fund reported at least 89 million Americans went without any form of health insurance for at least a month between 2004 to 2007, with lost eligibility for a public insurance program as one of the reasons.