GOP Rivals Ratchet Up Intensity In S.C. Debate

Jan 17, 2012
Originally published on January 17, 2012 5:19 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: And I'm Renee Montagne. The scene of last night's Republican presidential debate was Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It's a resort city known for golf courses, and the Republican field is almost small enough now to form a gulfing foursome.

INSKEEP: Almost, though not quite. Five candidates remain after Jon Huntsman withdrew. You could think of it as a foursome of challengers chasing Mitt Romney at the top of the leader board.

Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

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SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Fireworks erupted outside the Myrtle Beach Convention Center last night, a hint at what was happening inside. Just before the debate, Rick Santorum announced a new ad campaign criticizing Mitt Romney for being too much like President Obama. During the debate, the former Pennsylvania senator complained about an ad from a pro-Romney group, targeting him. The ad suggests Santorum would allow felons to vote.

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HORSLEY: Pressed by Santorum for an answer, Romney said he does not believe violent felons should be allowed to vote. Santorum then asked why Romney hadn't tried to change the law when he was governor of Massachusetts.

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HORSLEY: Santorum, who finished just eight votes behind Romney in Iowa two weeks ago, is hoping to capitalize on a weekend endorsement from leading social conservatives to mount a convincing challenge to the frontrunner.

Texas Governor Rick Perry also took on Romney, over his financial background as a private equity investor, suddenly reminding voters of Romney's awkward comment – that he likes being able to fire people.

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HORSLEY: Up until now, Romney's been reluctant to release his tax records. He did not exactly promise to do so last night, but says he probably will on or about tax day, April 15.

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HORSLEY: Texas Congressman Ron Paul continues to stand out from the Republican pack for his isolationist views on foreign policy, and for his eagerness to cut military spending. Paul argued last night such cuts would not necessarily hurt the economy here in South Carolina, which is home to more than half a dozen major military bases.

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HORSLEY: Paul drew boos for questioning the U.S. raid inside Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was asked if he'd authorize a similar unilateral strike in order to kill Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Gingrich, as he often does, cited history as his guide.

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HORSLEY: The format for last night's debate allowed more time for answers, and with fewer candidates that made for some lively discussion of topics like Social Security. Gingrich outlined his plan to let young people open private retirement accounts, while Romney suggested raising the eligibility age for future retirees.

Santorum warned Gingrich's plan would add too much to the deficit and said the Romney plan is too timid, since it would leave Social Security unchanged for everyone over 55.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

HORSLEY: Republicans have one more debate before Saturday, and the primary many expect will determine how much longer the GOP nominating contest will go on.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.