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Republicans strive to stand out in South Carolina forum

COLUMBIA, S.C. ó The first thing Mitt Romney would do if elected president would be to let states opt out of President Barack Obama’s health care reform plan, Romney said during a GOP presidential forum Monday in Columbia. PHOTO: Businessman and presidential hopeful Hernan Cain fields questions from panelists Dr. Robert P. George, Rep. Steve King and Sen. Jim DeMint during a Labor Day question and answer forum at the Columbia Metropolitican Convention Center in Columbia, South Carolina, Monday, September 5, 2011. |By Gina Smith, McClatchy Newspapers

COLUMBIA, S.C. ó The first thing Mitt Romney would do if elected president would be to let states opt out of President Barack Obama’s health care reform plan, Romney said during a GOP presidential forum Monday in Columbia.

(Businessman and presidential hopeful Hernan Cain fields questions from panelists Dr. Robert P. George, Rep. Steve King and Sen. Jim DeMint during a Labor Day question and answer forum at the Columbia Metropolitican Convention Center in Columbia, South Carolina, Monday, September 5, 2011.)

“That’ll be one of my best assets if I get to debate President Obama,” said Romney, who as Massachusetts governor ushered in a state health care system that required residents to have insurance coverage. He said his plan affected only 8 percent of people in his home state, unlike Obama’s plan, which would eventually affect all Americans.

The health care reform law “has got to be stopped,” he added, “and I know it better than most.”

Vying to be the tea party favorite in a state increasingly known for its fervor for limited government and less taxes, five leading GOP presidential contenders took to the stage, fielding questions from popular conservative U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and the American Principles Project, a nonprofit encouraging a political return to constitutional principles.

Of the five candidates at the forum ó Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain ó Romney received the highest approval ratings in the most recent poll of likely GOP primary voters in South Carolina.

But the top vote-getter in that same poll, Texas Gov. Rick Perry ó who is leading in South Carolina by 20 percentage points ó withdrew plans to attend Monday’s forum to return to Texas to deal with wildfires there, after attending an event earlier in the day in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Still, the state’s first-in-the-South primary is months away, in February, with big names like DeMint yet to endorse.

U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said Monday he was pleased to see Romney engaging with the state’s voters. With few visits to the state thus far, many speculate Romney, who initially declined an invitation to the event, will not aggressively campaign in South Carolina, where he finished fourth in the 2008 primary. DeMint endorsed Romney in 2008.

“A, he showed up, which is really good; and B, he did really well,” Scott said of Romney’s performance Monday.

In conversations full of quotes from Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, the five candidates worked to distinguish themselves from the pack and prove their salt as strict adherers to the U.S. Constitution and the ideology of the nation’s founding fathers.

During the first 22-minute grilling, Bachmann took a subtle stab at Romney, saying states cannot constitutionally enact health care reform. She also continued her opposition to labor unions.

“They have denied the people of South Carolina literally thousands of high-paying jobs,” Bachmann said of the National Labor Relations Board fighting a decision by Boeing to move one of its airplane production lines to North Charleston, S.C., from a unionized site in Washington state.

Bachmann added she has spoken with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has said companies in Japan, Canada and Germany are interested in relocating to South Carolina “but they’re wondering what the ruling of the NLRB would be,” Bachmann said. “As president of the United States, I would not appoint anyone to the NLRB who does not support the right to work (states.)”

Meanwhile, Georgia businessman Cain said that national security would be his top priority, and that he would oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants in all forms.

When it comes to legal immigrants, Cain said caps may be appropriate in certain communities.

“In some communities, there might be a number where we don’t want to overwhelm the system,” he said.

Cain also said he would tackle the national debt with an across-the-board cut on all federal spending, the elimination of inefficient and duplicative programs, and a restructuring of expensive programs such as Social Security, possibly with individual retirement accounts.

Several in the audience including state Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican, and tea party members said they were impressed by Gingrich, who pushed for the repeal of the Dodd-Frank Act’s new regulations on banks. Gingrich also is pushing no tax increases in 2013, permanently abolishing the death tax and taking the corporate tax rate to 12.5 percent from its current range of 15 percent to 35 percent.

“He really knows the issues,” said Laurie Papotto of Pelzer, S.C., who attended Monday’s event. “I wish he could overcome the other things (in his personal life) to stand a chance.”

Meanwhile, Paul pushed for the elimination of most of the federal government, leaving a leaner system to oversee sound money, property rights, the judicial system, defense of the country “but not a heck of a lot else,” Paul said.
“Everything (else) should be up for grabs,” Paul said.

Paul also said he would also relieve all American troops from international duty no matter what country they’re stationed.
“I’d bring them all home,” Paul said. “Besides, we’re bankrupt.”

óóó

SCORECARD:
Some of the highs and lows from Monday’s Palmetto Freedom Forum in Columbia:
óBig applause: Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, congratulating the University of South Carolina on its defeat Saturday of East Carolina. “I identify with teams that fumble early in the game then come back.”
óMost memorable quote: U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas: “People say to me, ‘Half the people don’t pay taxes.’ I say, ‘We’re halfway there!’ ”
óBiggest gaffe: Georgia businessman Herman Cain: “I don’t have an answer for that, congressman” ó responding to a question by U.S. Rep. Steve King on the number of legal immigrants who should be allowed in the country.
óLargest number of supporters: Paul had supporters waving banners outside of the convention center and had many supporters inside the event, too.
óBiggest diss: The media received the biggest diss. Despite event organizers providing a room where candidates could talk to the media, only one ó Cain ó went to the room and fielded reporters’ questions.

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