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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C.—With the South Carolina GOP presidential primary just days away, candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination sparred last Thursday night at the First-in-the-South GOP presidential debate.
No Republican has ever won the presidency without first winning the South Carolina primary, debate panelist Carl Cameron told the candidates, whose demeanors already suggested they understood the importance of capturing the key state.
The South Carolina Republican Party and Fox News, the cable news station that broadcast the debate live from the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, hosted the event.
Fresh off a victory in the New Hampshire primary, four-term Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the Iowa Caucus winner, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, squared off against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
Candidates tackled immigration, taxes, the economy, national security, the stability of the Middle East and education.
The first question posed to candidates was whether the country was heading toward a recession.
McCain, who described himself as a “foot soldier” in the Reagan army, said he did not think the U.S. was headed toward a recession.
“I believe the fundamentals of this economy are strong, and I believe they will remain strong,” he said.
Describing the economy as in a “rough patch,” McCain said the country needed to return to the fundamentals of former President Ronald Reagan.
“But fundamentally, also, we have to return to those principles of less government, lower taxes, strong family values, strong national defense, and those that made us the Reagan revolution that brought about a new dawn of a new day in America and helped us immeasurably in bringing down the iron curtain.”
Other candidates agreed with returning to the ways of the “Reagan Coalition.”
“This is a battle for the heart and the soul of the Republican Party and its future. On the one hand, you have the Reagan revolution. You have the Reagan Coalition of limited government and strong national security,” Thompson said.
“What’s happened in America is that Washington has moved away from the Reagan coalition. The Republican Party, in some cases, has moved away from the Reagan principles,” Romney said.
Romney continued his praise of Reagan.
“Ronald Reagan said, ‘We’re going to have a such a strong military, we’ll out-compete the Soviets,’ and he did. He said, ‘We’re going to have such strong families that the values of Americans will shine as an example of a shining city on a hill for the entire world to see,’ and he did that,” Romney said.
Giuliani, who was appointed as both a U.S. Attorney and the Associate Attorney General by Reagan, said, while the U.S. is in “different times,” Reagan’s principles would still apply today.
“Ronald Reagan’s principles would apply now, but they have to apply to different circumstances,” he said.
“I’m a conservative because I believe in a strong national defense, the way Ronald Reagan did.”
Huckabee, who also claimed to be part of the Reagan Coalition, said, “Over the years, sometimes Republicans have thought that one part of the Coalition was more important than the other. I think they’re all important, and we need to recapture them.”
While rebutting a claim by Thompson that he governed via the model of the Democratic Party rather than by the virtues of the Reagan Coalition, Huckabee said, “I did something that had not been done in my state in 160 years. I cut taxes, with the legislature working with me, and continued to do it 94 times.”
“I cut taxes, I managed government. I raised the quality of life by making sure that education, and health, and highways were accessible to every kid in that state,” Huckabee said.
“I also believe that we have to pursue those principles of lower taxes, restraining spending, devolving power to the people, getting power to the governments that are closest to the people,” Giuliani said.
In response to whether he is a “viable” candidate, Paul said, “So you’re suggesting that I’m not electable and the Republicans don’t want me because I’m a strict fiscal conservative, because I believe in civil liberties? Why should we not be defending civil liberties, and why should we not be talking about foreign policy that used to be the part of the Republican Party?”
National security and the situation in the Middle East dominated the debate topics.
“I have been one of those involved in one of the most important changes that could have ever made, and that is reverse a losing strategy in Iraq, which would have entailed the loss of so much and so much sacrifice of American treasure. And now we have a new strategy and we are succeeding,” McCain said.
In response to a questioned posed to candidates about a recent American commander’s decision to respond passively in the Strait of Hormuz after Iranian aggression, most candidates said they agreed with the commander’s decision, citing the commander’s training and experience to make critical decisions.
“I think it’s very important that we make it crystal clear that we will have the most powerful, the best trained, the best-equipped military on the face of the planet that has ever existed,” Huckabee said.
Thompson also said the commander made the right call.
“You can’t take the judgment like that out of the hands of the officers on the ground there. I think one more step and they would have been introduced to those virgins that they’re looking forward to seeing,” Thompson said to an eruption of laughter and applause.
Romney said he thought Iran was a very serious threat to national security.
“And the Iranians continue to take acts like this, it points out that we have in Iran a very troubled nation,” Romney said.
The hot-button topic of immigration was saved for the last round of questions. Panelist Wendell Goler said immigration was a big issue in both South Carolina and New Hampshire.
“Senator McCain, the president’s push for immigration reform failed mainly because of disagreements over your plan for dealing with the 12 million people now here illegally. You say you’ve learned your lesson; you’d secure the borders first. OK. Then how would you deal with the illegals?”
“Actually, it failed because the American people had no trust or confidence in the federal government to do its job, because we had passed a law in 1986 that said we’d allow citizenship and actually what happened was that we didn’t secure our borders, as we promised. So Americans need to restore their trust and sacrifice,” McCain said.
“I know how to secure the borders.”
“Gov. Romney, I’m not sure I heard how the senator would remove the 12 million people here illegally. You called his plan a form of amnesty. What’s yours? And how would it encourage illegals to come out of the shadows, sir?,” Goler asked.
“I didn’t hear the answer, either. And I’d also tell you that all of us on this stage agree—I believe, I don’t know about Ron Paul, but I think everybody else agrees—I just haven’t heard your position; I don’t mean to be critical—that we secure the border, we have the fence and we have enough border patrol agents to secure the border, and that we have an employment verification system of some kind,” Romney said.
Paul rebutted, “We have a weakening economy and now immigrants, especially illegals, are seen as a threat because they come and they undermine our tax system.”
Huckabee said he has a nine-point plan that gives immigrants 120 days to return to their home country and start the immigration process from “the back of the line.”
Giuliani had the last word on immigration.
“We have only 14,000 Border Patrol, and we have 12 million illegal immigrants,” he said.
“Do you think we can handle the problem with 14,000 border patrol unless we make some very big changes?”