Five Republican presidential candidates gathered at a forum in South Carolina on Labor Day to field questions in a pre-debate warm-up.
Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney each got a turn on the stage answering questions from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), Rep. Peter King (R-IA) and Princeton Professor Dr. Robert George. All were asked the same fundamental questions about job plans, monetary policy, foreign policy, immigration, the size and scope of government, and social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. None of the candidates were able to hear any of the others' answers.
Here are five things we learned:
1. They're divided on what to do about abortion
Though united in their pro-life stances, yesterday's participants don't agree on how the federal government should curb abortions. Michele Bachmann favors a constitutional amendment that would help overturn Roe v. Wade; Newt Gingrich thinks abortion is already unconstitutional and that House legislation alone could suffice to make it illegal. But Ron Paul and Mitt Romney took a much less aggressive tone on the issue, saying that legality should be left to the states rather than Washington. That's not a surprise from Paul, who wants the feds to leave states alone in general.
2. There's support for a merit-based immigration system
Candidates weren't lacking for complaints about border security and law enforcement, but when asked about the legal immigration system their responses were more nuanced. There were frequent references to America being the most "generous" nation in the world, allowing one million legal immigrants to enter the country every year.
Newt Gingrich said that quota should expand and contract with boom and bust times, respectively, and that accepting immigrants should be contingent upon some vague criteria that they assimilate into the American culture; English should be our national language, he lamented. "When you have a country," Gingrich said, "that is comfortable saying to people, 'Come to America to be Americans,' you can absorb more people than if you have a country whose elites are totally confused and prepared to give up on being American."
Herman Cain also voiced support for a more selective legal immigration system. He favors screening applicants for their qualifications, skills, and education to see "if they're bringing us more problems than opportunities."
3. For taxes, it's a race to the bottom
Michele Bachmann would lower the corporate tax rate to 20 percent. Newt Gingrich would lower it to 12.5 percent. Herman Cain would lower it to nine percent—this as part of his 9/9/9 proposal for a nine percent rate on the corporate income tax, the personal income tax, and a national sales tax.
All of them would nix the capital gains tax to encourage investment, say no to any tax increase, yadda yadda yadda. The surprise here isn't that Republicans favor lower taxes, it's that they went on stage one after another and made their pitches as if taking turns at the limbo stick. Just wait until next Monday's Tea Party-sponsored debate on CNN, when you'll see how low they can really go.
4. Newt Gingrich is still running
Cheeky, yes, but you'd be forgiven for forgetting. The money problems, the third-to-last showing at the Ames Straw Poll (Gingrich fared worse in Iowa than any other candidate on stage Monday), the fact that his campaign already imploded once this year when most of his staff jumped ship...it would be one thing if it were poor polling alone, but it's not. After nearly missing the Straw Poll because he couldn't afford it, Gingrich is back in front of cameras and on the roster for tomorrow night's debate.
It was interesting that despite all those very public potholes, Gingrich didn't get a question about his electability. In fact, the moderators could have asked every candidate the same thing, as they've all got serious blemishes: Would Republicans—and the rest of America—really vote for you? The only one who got anywhere close to answering that was Mitt Romney, who had to field a very brief question at the end of his time about similarities between his Massachusetts health care reform and "Obamacare."
5. Michele Bachmann says contradictory things
Maybe we should have titled this "Four Things We Learned from the GOP Field This Weekend—and One Thing We Knew Already."
But seriously, the wheels came off at the end of Bachmann's time when she started answering a line of questions about gay marriage. Asked whether states with legalized same-sex marriage should be accommodating to anti-gay adoption agencies who don't want to give foster children to gay couples, Bachmann said yes, because she "[believes] in equal protection under the law." Only for religious institutions, apparently, since she also favors a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Then she crashed and burned when pressed about her stance on the individual mandate provision of the health care law. Going further than any other candidate at the forum, she said that an individual mandate wasn't just unconstitutional at the federal level: if a state had an individual mandate law—Massachusetts, anyone?—that would also be unconstitutional. Dr. Robert George, a professor at Princeton, asked where it said that in the Constitution. Bachmann stuttered and replied that she thought it was "inherent."
"To say that it's inherent sounds like there's not a particular provision you can point to," George replied. Bachmann conceded. For someone who introduced herself as the "constitutionally conservative" candidate, that's a pretty liberal (and inaccurate) reading of the Constitution. But as I said, that's one thing we knew already.