The Republicans held their 16th debate in the GOP nomination process in Myrtle Beach on Monday, less than a week before Saturday’s critical South Carolina primary. Here’s what we learned:
1. Juan Williams and Newt Gingrich will not be lunch buddies
On the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., Juan Williams, a longtime Fox News analyst who is African-American, asked a series of direct questions about race that made the candidates and the largely conservative audience a bit wary, generating boos at times.
He pressed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich repeatedly on controversial remarks Gingrich has made about poverty and asked former senator Rick Santorum about black unemployment.
“Speaker Gingrich, you recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also said poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools. Can’t you see that this is viewed at a minimum as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?,” Williams asked.
When Williams was not satisfied with Gingrich’s first answer, Williams followed up and annoyed the crowd, saying, “And I got to tell you, my email account and my Twitter account has been inundated with people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities.”
“First of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history,” Gingrich said to cheers from the audience. “Now, I know among the politically correct you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”
A fired-up Gingrich added, “I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn someday to own the job.”
Santorum, when asked about the high poverty rates for blacks, repeated his view that it is largely a problem of behavior, not economics. He said the jobless rate would go down if people of all races all graduated from high school, got married and had children after marriage.
“It’s a huge, huge opportunity for us,” Santorum said.
2. The Republican candidates back provisions that would limit voting by felons and people without photo identification
The Republican candidates defended voting provisions that liberal activists say could limit the franchise for millions of Americans and disproportionately affect blacks.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner, said, “I don’t think people who’ve committed violent crimes should ever be allowed to vote again.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry strongly backed laws in his home state and in South Carolina that would mandate that voters present photo identification to cast a ballot.
“South Carolina is at war with the federal government and this administration,” Perry said, criticizing the Justice Department’s decision last month to block the implementation of South Carolina’s new voter ID law.
Rick Santorum defended allowing felons to vote once they had served their sentences.
“This is Martin Luther King Day. This is a huge deal in the African-American community because we have very high rates of incarceration — disproportionately high rates, particularly with drug crimes — in the African-American community,” Santorum said. “The bill I voted on was the Martin Luther King Voting Rights bill. And this was a provision that said — particularly targeted to African-Americans, and I voted to allow — to allow them to have their voting rights back once they completed their sentence.”
3. They aren’t backing away from fiery rhetoric
Perry’s comment that South Carolina is at “war” with the federal government seemed odd in a debate in South Carolina, considering the Civil War started there. Gingrich repeated his remark that Obama is the “best food stamp president in American history.”
4. They still aren’t taking on Romney
Gingrich and Santorum at times attacked each other, as they are largely competing for the same bloc of conservatives in South Carolina. At times, they seemed to forget a victory by Romney in South Carolina would effectively clinch the nomination for him.