Texas Congressman Ron Paul showed he’s still got plenty of fire in the belly Thursday night in a debate with the three other remaining candidates in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
With Gov. Rick Perry out of the running, Paul introduced himself to military-friendly Palmetto State voters as the only veteran in the competition. Throughout the night, he reminded the Charleston, S.C., audience that he served as a doctor in the Air Force and receives “twice as many donations” from soldiers and veterans “than all the rest put together.”
But the two-hour CNN debate was largely defined by a fiery opening, when moderator John King asked former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich to address his ex-wife’s accusation he wanted an open marriage. Energized by a sympathetic and cheering audience, Gingrich angrily attacked the “liberal media” for bringing up “trash” that is “as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
Asked whether character should be an issue in the campaign, Paul was critical of the media. Still, the 76-year-old took a swipe at Gingrich, whom he has attacked as a “serial hypocrite.”
“Setting standards is important, and I’m glad my wife [Carol] of 54 years is with me tonight,” Paul said.
Jesse Benton, Paul’s campaign manager, said in a prepared statement that Republicans seem unfairly attacked. However, he added that the campaign said Gingrich should be called out for accepting fees from Freddie Mac and for supporting bailouts and individual mandates.
“Our problem with Newt Gingrich is not that he lied to his wife but that he lied to the American people,” Benton said.
In the debate, Paul repeated his demands that the federal government should cut regulations, reduce income taxes and reform its currency system to create “a sound economy.” He continued to argue for staying out of international conflicts and rather than investing overseas, focus on liquidating the nation’s debt, better health care for returning veterans and defending the homeland.
“We’re over [in Pakistan and Afghanistan], fighting and dying over that border. Why don’t we take those resources and quit pretending we can take care of the world,” Paul said. “Put them on our borders, and take care of our needs here.”
Paul raised some eyebrows when he said the likelihood of repealing federal health care is “not good.” He said that before the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the medical system “worked rather well and no one was suffering.”
The retired obstetrician, who refused to accept federal subsidies throughout his career, accused former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum of expanding government involvement when he supported the prescription drug program called Medicare Part D.
Santorum fought off criticism by calling himself the steadiest candidate on the stage who "wouldn't say things people have to worry about."
During a back-and-forth on their anti-abortion views, Santorum accused Paul of having a poor record in Congress. Paul fired back that Santorum is "overly sensitive"— and right-to-life issues should be left to the states.
Other highlights from the debate:
— Paul said he was “embarrassed” to release his tax returns because he doesn’t have much to hide. He does not plan to release anything beyond what he’s required to do as a member of Congress.
— On the Stop Online Piracy Act, a controversial bill many argue would lead to Internet censorship, Paul said he was the first Republican to join Democrats in opposing the legislation. “Republicans have been on the wrong side of the issue," he warned.
— Regarding illegal immigration, Paul was applauded when he said, “We’re all against illegal immigration, but I think we fail to look at the incentives. There’s an economic incentive for them to come … there’s an incentive for people in our country to not take those low-income jobs.”
— Paul’s supporters in the audience showed why they are a powerful force. Several times, they yelled and booed the moderator until he allowed the congressman to respond to questions asked of his opponents.
— If he could change anything about his campaign so far, Paul said he would speak “a little slower” so that he could “continue to work on delivering a message which I think is a great message.” On the same question, Gingrich said he would have forgone working with traditional consultants during the first few months of his campaign. Those advisers jumped ship to join Perry’s campaign in August.