MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Hours before a critical debate, Republicans held a tent revival. Literally.
While the Secret Service swept the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in preparation for this evening’s five-man conversation, Ralph Reed drew South Carolina voters to a massive, heated tent across the street where they could listen to each candidate perform his own warm-up.
There was no sawdust floor, no sweaty bouts of testifyin’. Just an unchallengeable, standing room-only demonstration that, six years after a calamitous run for lieutenant governor in Georgia, Reed is back in the center of Republican presidential politics.
Prosperity gospel was in vogue. With a few loud – perhaps accidental — bars of “Money, Money, Money,” the revival opened with a video address from Donald Trump, who declared that the world “is laughing at the stupidity of our leaders. They’re absolutely taking us to the cleaners.”
To South Carolina primary voters, Trump said, “You must choose the right person.” But Trump didn’t say who it was.
Reed followed, and throughout the event detailed his plan to build an organization every bit as influential as the old Christian Coalition – if not more so. Reed promised a Faith and Freedom operation in “every key battle ground state,” and an effort to search out and register 17 million inactive evangelicals. Come Election Day in November, his group plans to contact 27 million like-minded voters seven to 12 times.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition is an attempt to unite evangelicals with tea partyists, but religiosity had the upper hand on Monday afternoon. When Reed asked tea party adherents to raise their hands, only a quarter of the audience did so.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was the first candidate to speak. It was a rambling address that touched on God and country, his father’s exploits as a B-17 tail-gunner during World War II, and his record in Texas. As would all the other non-Romneys, Perry included as a major topic the matter of authenticity.
”If you really want to know how a man is going to perform in the future, look at his past,” Perry said. He accused Democrats of attempting to “whitewash the public square of all spiritual values. “Somebody’s values are going to get legislated. The question is this: whose values are going to get legislated?” the governor said.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was the next celebrity, there to introduce Mitt Romney, now the man to beat. “I want so much to have someone who has nothing to do with the chaos in Washington. I saw this man fix broken companies,” Haley said – an unspoken defense of Romney’s years at Bain Capital.
Coming to the stage, Romney was the only candidate to acknowledge that this was Martin Luther King Day. “I think he’s a great man and I appreciate his service to our country and our Constitution,” he said.
Romney trotted out familiar lines – that he was there to collect on President Barack Obama’s promise of improved times. He recited the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” – again. No mention of Jon Huntsman’s endorsement. And no mention of any other candidates – just Obama.
“His path on jobs is kind of hard to figure out,” Romney said. The country, he added, needs someone who “understands on how to create jobs because he’s had a job, and I have.” In past speeches, Romney has directly said that he has created jobs. This is a subtle change.
Perhaps with Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China, out of the race, Romney also felt free to boost his anti-abortion credentials by accusing Vice President Joe Biden of acquiescing to China’s one-child policy during a recent trip to Asia. “The next president of the United States should stand up for the sanctity of life in this country and anywhere else in the world,” Romney said.
Romney was one of only two candidates to have two advocates speak for them during the afternoon. Jay Sekulow of metro Atlanta, who heads a Christian legal defense organization, was a Romney supporter in ’08.
“We share a compassion for the Jewish state,” Sekulow said. “Who are we to dictate to the Israelis what their borders should be when they were the ones attacked in 1967?”
Sekulow was followed by Jeff Ballabon, a Jewish activist from New York, who cut loose a pair of zingers – but made no endorsement. “We need a president who understands that Iranians building nukes are worse than Jews building homes in Jerusalem,” he said. “America needs a president with the spine to confront Iran.”
It was a close call, but Rick Santorum may have generated the strongest reaction from those gathered under the tent. Santorum explained why he, a Catholic, was once named by Time magazine as one of the nation’s top evangelical leaders.
“I was the only non-pastor on that list,” he reminded the audience. “They called me the point man.”
Politics isn’t about subtlety. Santorum spoke of “core convictions.” He asked the crowd to examine the beliefs of each candidate. “Is it because of what they really believe in their heart…or is it because they happen to be running in a Republican primary with conservative voters,” he said.
Santorum asked the South Carolina voters not to concentrate on picking the man who would eventually be the nominee. “It’s not about winning or not winning. It’s about how you want to win. Do you want to win by being just a little better? Or do you want to win with a mandate, as Reagan did, reminding each and every American of who we are.”
“I didn’t run for president to be the most powerful person in the world. I’m running for president to make you the most powerful people in the world,” he said.
Santorum alluded to Romney’s health care overhaul in Massachusetts. “This race should be, must be, two visions of stark contrast. We can’t have someone who gives that issue away.”
He rattled off the names of all four of his opponents. “Only one did not support the Wall Street bailout. Me. Clear lines, sharp contrast,” he said.
Ron Paul was next, and warned of the dangers of democracy run amuck. “It wastes and then exhausts, and then it murders itself,” he said. Paul compared himself to the Prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament, searching for a “remnant” of true believers.
“We need to look into the morality and constitutionality of our monetary system. The Bible is very clear only gold and silver can be used as legal tender,” he said.
Newt Gingrich was last, and late. U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., gave a preliminary introduction, addressing Gingrich’s debating skills. “He will eat Mr. Obama’s cookies and all accoutrements thereto,” Franks said.
Reed actually preceded Gingrich, but was forced to stretch things out. Only a day before, Reed had given Santorum an effusive introduction, and had promised to do the same for Gingrich.
“[Gingrich] made a huge difference in our values. We would not be where we are, as a conservative movement, were it not for people like Newt Gingrich,” Reed said, declaring that the former U.S. House speaker had presided over the “greatest renaissance of conservative values since Ronald Reagan.”
Gingrich was pleased – and got straight to the point. “Unless a conservative wins Saturday, we’re going to wind up with a moderate nominee who will have a very difficult time defeating Barack Obama. You need a candidate who is far enough to the right so that all the attacks fall into the empty space in between,” Gingrich said.
Republicans need “somebody who has believed what they believe for more than three or four years and not be confused,” he said. Gingrich drew murmurs from the audience when he criticized Romney for the inclusion of abortion funding in the Massachusetts health care plan. And drew blood again when he said that Massachusetts, “ranked 47th in job creation because he kept raising taxes.” After each jab, Gingrich quickly moved to Obama – linking the two.
As the audience exited the tent, volunteers engaged in the South Carolina tradition of handing out anonymous smear sheets. One promoted Gingrich as “the best candidate to stop a one-world government.” Another attacked Romney: “If you’ve been laid off, you’ve already met Mitt Romney.”
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider