COLUMBIA, S.C. - In South Carolina it’s something of a final countdown. With less than six weeks to go until the Palmetto State votes for its GOP presidential nominee, candidates are upping their visibility throughout the region, and this weekend provided a taste of the in-party bickering that’s likely to be the political El Nino building the storm to come.
On Saturday, six of the Republican Party’s presidential hopefuls gathered in the heart of South Carolina’s capital to speak at a forum focused on poverty. The Jack Kemp Foundation — a group mirroring the efforts of the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development — hosted the event, which focused on an issue that’s so far been muted in this campaign season. Still it’s a topic close to South Carolina, a state with the 11th worstpoverty rate in the nation.
Two rising stars of the GOP party, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, moderated the event. The atmosphere was markedly different from the spectacle typically seen at the televised political debates; it was defined by camaraderie and sober discussion. Who was missing? Most notably Donald Trump.
In a joint panel discussion, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former brain surgeon Ben Carson talked at length about poverty issues they’ve dealt with first-hand, either in the states they governed or, in the case of Carson, personally.
All three, along with Ryan and Scott, talked about ways to reach out to impoverished voters who believe the Republican Party is not focused on helping them. Often the candidates commended one another’s ideas and agreed with each other as they picked through policies they hope could make the GOP more approachable.
“We as Republicans have to go back to campaigning in places we feel uncomfortable,” Christie said. “Fact of the matter is, we have to be going into African American churches, to go into the communities and the barrios—what they want is to be listened to, listening is empowering. First we have to listen, but our party has failed listening to those places.”
Arthur Brooks, the president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which was a co-sponsor of the forum, said the problem with poverty is that it’s easily a forgotten issue.
“Poor people tend to be forgotten, and that’s a big moral problem. It’s because they aren’t voting, and because they don’t have power, and we don’t know what to do about it, “ he told DecodeDC. “And these candidates aren’t evil, everyone wants to help poor people, but we don’t know what to do. And if you don’t know what to do, you don’t bring it up.”
For the Republican Party, the event was important for showcasing leadership unity on a topic that is not typically a Republican talking point.
But the unity failed to extend outside of the event, as GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump chose not to attend the event, and instead held his own rally Friday night only an hour north of the South Carolina capital in Rock Hill. He was back to campaigning in Iowa on Saturday.
More than 6,000 people attended Trump’s Friday night rally, which was held on Winthrop University’s campus.
Eschewing poverty or economic policies as main topic points, the former reality TV star and real estate mogul focused on gun rights and national security during his hour-long, stream-of-consciousness-style speech. He drew loud cheers for suggesting links between Syrian refugees and ISIS and touting his solid lead in a newly released Fox News national poll that shows him ahead with 35 percent among Republican primary voters.
The rally made headlines when Trump’s security team threw out a silently protesting woman who came to the rally wearing a Hijab. Earlier she had told a CNN reporter that she was at the rally because “most Trump supporters probably never met a Muslim.”
But protestors weren’t the only people the Trump team cast out— Republican U.S. Representative Mick Mulvaney, whose district includes the 6,100-seat arena that the former Celebrity Apprentice star was utilizing, was denied access to greet the candidate.
“I had not been vetted,” a stunned Mulvaney told reporters at the event. “I am not bullshitting you. I could not get … back there to meet him.”
Laughing as he recounted the story, Mulvaney said he also was “wanded” for weapons before entering the arena.
“They also asked me if I was carrying a gun when I walked in,” Mulvaney said. “I’m like, ‘I’m happy to do this, but they don’t ask that when I go see the president.’”
Maybe, just maybe, this could have been Mulvaney’s problem: He is openly backing Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s Republican presidential bid. He said he was coming to greet Trump, just like he attends all of the presidential events that come to his district. Mulvaney attended the Kemp Forum the following day.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina also didn’t make the Saturday Kemp Forum. Cruz was on his last day of his weeklong Iowa bus tour and Fiorina missed her flight.
But forum attendees were not shocked that Trump opted not to attend.
“He’s doing it his way. I don’t take it personally. It’s not our forum. It’s beneath him to do it,” said Brooks of AEI. “He does Donald Trump rallies, he comes to the debates because you have to go to the debates, but he doesn’t do policy candidate forums, he does Donald Trump rallies with a bunch of people with hats and yelling, because he can.”
Brooks added that he had spoken to Cruz who wanted to attend the forum but could not because of the tour.
Trump’s camp did not return a request for a comment for why he chose to campaign in Iowa rather than attend the event.
The candidate’s absence was a clear depiction of the divide between Trump’s campaign and the GOP establishment that has existed since his campaign launch back in June.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who recently ended his presidential run and spoke at the Kemp Forum, told DecodeDC that Trump’s lack of attendance was likely because “it wasn’t big enough for him.”
One of the most vocal assailants of the GOP front-runner, Graham said he was sure Trump would say he cared about poverty policies in his own way — by promising to “build big stuff.”
Graham also questioned the motives behind the presidential candidates who did attend the forum, which included Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
“Now presidential candidates are here, but are they here because they want to be or because they have to be?” He said, pausing. “Well apparently Donald Trump doesn’t feel like he has to be here.”
The question remains whether Trump will suffer from going it alone in the close-knit state where GOP leaders are largely tied to the establishment and Sen. Scott has been deemed the likely Republican presidential “kingmaker,” or if his own style will be enough to bring him to victory among the Palmetto trees.