|Myrtle Beach saw a spirited debate between the five remaining Republican candidates [GALLO/GETTY]
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina - Only five Republican contenders were behind the podia on Monday night after former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman bowed out of the Republican presidential race late on Sunday.
But at this debate - held in the coastal resort town of Myrtle Beach - the sentiment seemed to be the fewer, the merrier. The candidates sharply disagreed with one another, and were not shy about doing so. With five days to go until the South Carolina Republican primary, candidates knew the debate would be one of their last chances to make an impression on state voters.
The moderators began by asking former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry about their attacks on former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital.
Bain Capital is a private equity firm that bought distressed businesses and tried to turn them around. Some of the companies acquired by Bain then declared bankruptcy, which resulted in many lost jobs. This was at the crux of Gingrich's and Perry's attacks: that Romney was a job destroyer, not a job creator - a potent charge in a state with an unemployment rate of almost ten per cent.
Gingrich was hesitant to launch the Bain attacks again (he has been criticised by many conservatives for attacking private equity firms, which they see as an integral part of capitalism). Instead, he framed his attacks on Romney as part of a necessary test of Romney's electability. "Part of the goal of a campaign is to raise questions," Gingrich opined, "and see if your competitor can answer them effectively before a general election."
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Perry also got in on the fun. He mentioned a steel mill that went bankrupt in Georgetown, South Carolina, charging that Bain had "picked that company over, and a lot of people lost their jobs there". In his defence, Romney shifted the blame for the steel mill bust to foreign countries, which he said were unfairly "dumping steel into this country".
Romney, the front-runner, has already won contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, and is currently leading in polls of South Carolina.
The debate, which was held on Martin Luther King Day, featured a few questions on racial issues. Moderator Juan Williams noted that Gingrich had recently said that black Americans should "demand jobs, not food stamps", and that poor children lack a strong work ethic. "Can't you see that this is viewed at a minimum as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?" asked Williams pointedly.
To which Gingrich replied: "I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursuit happiness. And if that makes liberals unhappy - 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."
One attendee, Myrtle Beach resident Brandon Lewis, had gone into the debate undecided about whom he would vote for. Lewis, an African-American, said he thought that Gingrich had responded to Williams' question "pretty well. That was kind of the sticking point for me. I thought he made some really good points".
Texas congressman Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum - who are probably about as far apart from one another ideologically as any other two candidates - sparred vigorously with one another.
Paul got great pleasure out of saying that he'd tried to craft a one-minute television advertisement against Santorum, but that he "couldn't get in all the things I wanted to say" - such as condemning Santorum's past positions on government spending, prescription drug programmes and right-to-work legislation.
But Santorum didn't roll over. For his part, he attacked Paul for "quoting a lot of left-wing organisations" in his attack ads.
Paul and Gingrich also fought one another on foreign policy issues. Paul had previously expressed opposition to the US assassination of Osama bin Laden without an attempt to capture him - a position that drew a chorus of boos from the audience. He was also roundly jeered when he proposed a "golden rule in foreign policy - don't do unto other nations what we don't want them to do to us".
Gingrich, a former history professor, responded to Paul: "[19th-century president] Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America's enemies: Kill them."
At the debate, the candidates were asked how high they thought the highest marginal federal income tax rate ought to be. (It’s currently 35 per cent on income over $379,150.) Here’s what they said:
Santorum: 28 per cent
Romney: 25 per cent
Perry: 20 per cent
Gingrich: 15 per cent
Paul: 0 per cent
Rick Perry, on the other hand, seemed to be in another world for much of the debate. He was not asked many questions, and was barely attacked by his opponents - perhaps an indication that few of his competitors fear the Texas governor, who is polling poorly both in South Carolina and in the nation at large.
Perry did, however, make a few controversial statements. When discussing the Justice Department's involvement in blocking state voter identification laws, Perry asserted that "the state of Texas is under assault by the federal government" - and, escalating the Civil War allusions, that "South Carolina is at war with this federal government". In December 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the rest of the United States.
And, when discussing Turkey's participation in the NATO alliance, Perry said that the country, which is currently governed by a moderately Islamist party, "is being ruled by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists".
Surprisingly, Romney - who has seemed unflappable in so many of these debates - became noticeably uneasy when asked by the moderator whether he would release his income tax statements (earlier in the debate, both Perry and Gingrich had also pushed him to release the files). "You know, if that's been the tradition, I'm not opposed to doing that - time will tell," Romney hedged. "But I anticipate that most likely I'm going to get asked to do that [release the tax records] around the April time period, and I'll keep that open."
At the outset of the debate, Williams' fellow moderator Bret Baier pointed out that, unlike in previous debates, there would be no bell or other sound effect to tell candidates that their time to speak was over.
Only 15 minutes into the debate, with candidates giving lengthy answers and hearty rebuttals, Baier admitted: "We might have to rethink that whole bell thing."
Jose Calixtro donned an ostrich suit with a sign reading: 'Romney has his head in the sand about jobs' [Sam Bollier/Al Jazeera]
Out on the street
Outside the convention centre, dozens of young Ron Paul supporters waved signs from street corners. Pamela Conklin, a registered nurse from Myrtle Beach, said she supported Paul for his consistency and "his respect for the constitution".
Supporters of other Republican candidates were largely absent.
A contingent of Occupy Myrtle Beach demonstrators - about 30 strong - were also present, pointing at the convention centre and chanting: "Who lie? They lie!"
One young man, who gave his name as JB, told Al Jazeera that he was there with Occupy because "we're sick and tired of the corporate influence" in politics. "We don't mind someone else having more material possessions than us," explained JB, "we just don't appreciate them having a louder voice in government".
Brian Pulling, a retired social worker from Myrtle Beach, said he was there with Occupy mainly to protest the National Defence Authorisation Act signed into law by President Obama in December 2011. "I think that was the most un-American law that Congress has ever passed," said Pulling. "I don't think it's about terrorism. I think it's about squelching dissent."
And, for whatever reason, Mitt Romney seems to inspire a lot of dressing up. In New Hampshire, a man wearing a dolphin outfit protested what he saw as Romney's "flip-flops". Here in Myrtle Beach, a lone anti-Romney protester named Jose Calixtro had donned an ostrich suit that held a sign reading, "Romney has his head in the sand about jobs in South Carolina."
Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier
Source: Al Jazeera