In a race dominated by national security with concerns about the need to broaden the GOP’s appeal, a half-dozen 2016 Republican presidential candidates came to Columbia Saturday to offer their solutions to aid the poor.
The forum drew the GOP field’s four main establishment candidates — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The four are seeking ways to topple the GOP’s unconventional national front-runners, New York billionaire Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Trump, who has become popular with sweeping promises to fix the nation’s problems using his business experience, has attracted big crowds in South Carolina, including 6,000 people at a Friday rally in Rock Hill. The poverty forum, sponsored by the Jack Kemp Foundation, drew about 1,000 to the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.
Candidates at the event — moderated by House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who was the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston — said Republicans need to show more compassion for the poor to win over skeptical voters.
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"We need to campaign in places where we're uncomfortable,” Christie said.
Improving education and reforming prison sentencing guidelines were among the talking points.
Christie said unions hurt students by keeping ineffective teachers in schools. Kasich mentioned giving criminals better chances at success when coming out of prison and re-entering the community.
The issue of income inequality, a major issue in the Democratic campaign, was dismissed. Rubio said raising the minimum wage could make workers more expensive than machines.
The best solutions can come from outside Washington, the candidates agreed. Bush discussed his plan to hand over federal food-stamp and housing-assistance programs to the states, which could establish their own goals for success.
“People are stuck in poverty, and the notion of some that they want to stay there is just totally ridiculous,” Bush said. “We’ll never win elections if we send any kind of message like that. We’ll become the minority party if we do that.”
The forum also allowed two candidates who are trying to woo S.C. social conservative voters — retired Maryland neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee — to tout their faith- and family-based solutions to a more ideological diverse audience.
Carson compared his flat-tax plan with tithing in that parishioners pay the same portion of their earnings to the church no matter how much they make.
Huckabee said getting a divorce should be made tougher than getting out of a contract to buy a car. That would lead to more personal accountability, he said.
"The best way to have smaller government is having bigger hearted people who govern themselves," he said.
Whether the poverty-solutions forum will sway S.C. voters is unclear, especially since the current leaders in the state’s Feb. 20 GOP presidential primary spent Saturday in earlier voting Iowa.
Bill Robinson, a Department of Defense retiree who came to the forum from Summerville, has not picked a favorite candidate. But, he said, he wished Bush would be more dynamic in an effort to win over more voters.
"I’m still felling around, looking for someone who can beat the Democrats," Robinson said. "Because these guys are right, I think there’s a lot of failed policies, and I think there is a poverty-educational complex that sort of owns the Democrats."
Haley pitches new rural teachers plan
Gov. Nikki Haley unveiled a piece of her new educational plan Saturday at a Republican presidential forum on poverty.
The Republican governor proposed the state pay the college tuition of teachers who agree to work at least eight years in a rural school. The governor offered no other details during her short speech at the Columbia forum.
The state already offers a college loan payback program for some teachers who teach in critical subjects or in districts that are low-performing or poor.
Haley is expected to include new education initiatives in her budget proposal, which she will release this week.
In 2014, the S.C. Legislature agreed to $180 million in extra education spending, mostly to aid poorer districts, that the governor advocated in her re-election bid.
Rubio vs. immigration protesters
Protesters who believe U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, is not doing enough to help undocumented immigrants interrupted him six times during a presidential poverty forum in Columbia on Saturday.
“Undocumented and unafraid,” several protesters chanted as they were escorted from the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. United We Dream Action, also known as Dreamers, took credit for the protests.
Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was on the stage with Rubio, asked the protesters to stop. “You have made your point,” he said before adding that more outbursts would hurt their cause.
Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, has drawn protests for changing his views on a path of citizenship for undocumented immigrants and his opposition to policies that aid children of undocumented workers. Rubio favors allowing permanent citizenship for undocumented immigrants after a multi-step process.