Commentary: South Carolina Debates

Michael Steele on the South Carolina presidential debates.

Simply the best debate among the GOP contenders to date. And not a moment too soon.

If there ever was a point in time for each candidate to crystalize their positions and to sharpen their elbows, it was at the South Carolina debate. With the departure of Gov. Jon Huntsman on the heels of the New Hampshire Primary, the full-blown assault on Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry for committing GOP heresy in their attacks on Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital and the still-significant number of undecided voters, Monday night’s debate was a cool, refreshing drink of political water. It had it all: zingers, bold pronouncements, phony politeness and a first: a standing ovation in the middle of one candidate’s answer.

But it was the discussion on unemployment and, in particular, employing poor minority children that struck a chord. First, I have to admit I still don’t know why, when Republicans talk about the poor, they immediately jump to "Black" — particularly when, as we saw in Iowa (where African-Americans make up only 2.8% of the general population and 11.8% of those in poverty) the vast majority of those unemployed and poor are white. But I digress.

More specifically, Newt’s call to tie all unemployment compensation, which currently lasts 99 weeks, to a job-training requirement presented one of the sharpest responses from any candidate when he noted " … the fact is, 99 weeks is an associate degree, … [which] tells you everything you need to know about the difference between Barack Obama and the five of us, that we actually think work is good."

But he was just warming up. When challenged as to whether his suggestion that poor minority children be paid for "light janitorial work" at school was somehow belittling minority children, Mr. Gingrich replied, "No, I don't see that."

And that is the point. Whether it is a “painted” rock on the front of your property, a newsletter that you author with pride, an errant comment about “other people’s money” or ideas to effect change in the lives of the Black community, no matter how good the intentions, Republicans have a hard time getting the message right.

No doubt I get the idea of who the targeted audience is for a candidate in a hot primary contest — his base. Newt Gingrich caught flak from some conservatives for speaking at a Black church this weekend. But I would contend, Newt was where he needed to be if for no other reason than to hear the concerns and gripes African-Americans have with some of Newt’s views (or at least his expression of views). Whether Democrat or Republican, appealing to one's base is crucial in order to separate yourself from the rest of the pack. For example, in 2008, we saw Barack Obama move to Hillary’s left, especially on the war in Iraq. Similarly, we have witnessed GOP contenders move decidedly to the right on the death penalty or gay marriage.

But today’s voters are more sophisticated than falling for an applause line or a sharply worded sound bite. With over 40% of registered voters identifying themselves as “independents,” primaries are no longer about playing to an audience of one, but rather, about melding two seemingly competing strategies at once: shoring up your standing with your base and expanding your message for a general election audience (remember, what you say in a primary is your opponent’s TV commercial in the general).

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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