What The Republican Candidates Said At South Carolina Town Halls

Alex Wong
Updated Feb 18, 11:30 p.m.: Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and real-estate developer/reality TV personality Donald Trump participated in round two of CNN’S Town Hall event in South Carolina on Thursday night.

Kasich spoke of voters he’s met on the campaign trail, being “pro-Pope” (regarding the Pope’s criticisms of Donald Trump’s anti-immigration, anti-refugee, anti-Muslim rhetoric), and advocated for a “war" on violence against women. “Single women with children are the real heroes,” he said to one voter. On healthcare, Kasich said, “I’d take some federal resources and I’d combine it with a freed-up Medicaid plan.” But he’d keep certain aspects of Obamacare: “If I’m president, a pre-existing condition will never be acceptable to deny you insurance. That is un-American," he said. When asked how he would curry favor with members of Congress, Kasich said he would call their mothers on their birthdays.

"I'm not that great a guy, OK? I'm just doing the best I can," he said, in conclusion.

Jeb Bush gave very touching shout-outs to his mom, Barbara Bush, who was in the audience, as well as his father, who was not in attendance. Describing how he met his wife of 40 years in Mexico inspired an awww moment. Bush also spoke to his religious faith and how it would influence his policy: “Faith is an important part of my life, and in public life, you don’t put your faith in a lockbox...we’re now confronted with a real challenge in our country, which is, can we find accommodation in this great country with great diversity?”

For his part, Trump made quick work of refuting Ted Cruz’s criticisms from last night’s Town Hall event. “He holds up the Bible and then he lies. I think it’s very inappropriate,” he said. Later, in an indirect jab at Jeb Bush, Trump blamed the European refugee crisis and the rise of ISIS on George W. Bush. One voter asked Trump about his temper and “self-control,” to which Trump replied, “I have a great temperament.” When asked how he’d fare as president, Trump said, “I deal with society, society loves me, and I can act differently for different people. But we don’t have time to be politically correct for our country.”

Trump also spoke on his affinities for McDonalds (for its standardization practices and cleanliness) and the late Michael Jackson, whom he called a friend, but said was ruined by plastic surgery: “He was an unbelievably talented guy. He lost his confidence. He lost tremendous confidence because of, honestly, bad bad bad surgery. He had the worst."
Original story, published February 17 at 11:30 p.m., follows.
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The Republican presidential candidates engaged in two competing Town Hall events in South Carolina Wednesday night ahead of primary voting in the state.

Senator Ted Cruz (Texas), Senator Marco Rubio (Florida), and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson took questions at CNN’s Town Hall, hosted by Anderson Cooper. Meanwhile, MSNBC gave Donald Trump his own (pre-recorded) event, co-hosted by Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of Morning Joe. (CNN will hold a second Town Hall event for the remaining three candidates, Trump, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and Ohio Governor John Kasich, on Thursday in order to give equal time.)

Marco Rubio rebuked claims that he is “the GOP’s Obama,” calling Obama a “failed president.” Talking up his own 15 years of civil service experience “turning conservative ideas into conservative action,” Rubio also bolstered his foreign policy experience: “No one running for president, especially on the Republican side, has more experience on national security or foreign policy as I do. As both a member of the Intelligence Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee, over the last five years, I have been dealing with every major issue this country confronts, and I understand these issues well. I have a record of good judgment on these issues.”

Ben Carson took a question from the audience about reconciling his Christian values with the GOP’s anti-government, anti-welfare stances. “My stance is that we, the people, have the responsibility to take care of the indigent in our society. It’s not the government’s job. You can read the constitution all you want; it never says it’s the government’s job,” said Carson. "By the time we got to the '60s, LBJ was saying, we, the government, are going to eliminate poverty. How did that work out? More poverty," Carson said. CNN’s Reality Check promptly debunked Carson’s reasoning behind his answer: Actions taken to reduce poverty by President Lyndon B. Johnson actually did reduce poverty, from 19% in 1964 to 11.1% within the decade. The poverty rates have remained below 15% since.

New national front-runner Ted Cruz touted his pro-life record and shrugged off Donald Trump’s insinuations about his eligibility for presidential office. Regarding Trump's lawsuit threat over a Cruz campaign ad that suggests the real estate developer is pro-choice and a supporter of Planned Parenthood, Cruz said, “You can never write off the possibility of Donald Trump suing you. He is welcome to file whatever lawsuit he wants. That lawsuit would not succeed.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s responses to questioning at his spin-off event were widely generalized, as opposed to the policy-oriented talk that went on concurrently at CNN’s event. (The full transcript was made available on MSNBC.com prior to air.) Much time was spent discussing poll results and disputes with the other candidates, about which Trump said, “I do attack people when I'm attacked.” Specifically, concerning Cruz’s ads alleging Trump to be a pro-choice supporter of Planned Parenthood, he admitted he hasn’t always been pro-life, but that he is now: “It changed years ago and what happened is I saw things with people and people that I know and people that I respect that made me change. Ronald Reagan changed. If you look at Reagan…Reagan actually used to be a fairly liberal Democrat and he became a fairly conservative conservative.”

“I'm a common-sense conservative,” Trump said, in response to another claim from the Cruz camp that he “flip-flops” on the issues. On each hot-button issue, Trump said he is “very strong” or “very conservative,” but failed to give any specifics of the means to his intended ends.
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