Attacks on other Republican candidates were mostly exceptions Monday night at the Alabama Republican Party’s presidential candidate forum. The target of most of the rhetoric was President Barack Obama, as became clear during opening remarks from Alabama GOP chairman Bill Armistead.
He said, “If you want to replace Barack Obama in the White House…”
Armistead did not end his sentence there, but his words became inaudible as the audience that packed the Alabama Theatre stood and roared in response.
Armistead’s remarks and the forum followed a bluegrass band and a short tune on the Alabama’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ — a bit of Southern-styled pre-event entertainment for the crowd, and for the two candidates who appeared at the forum, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Speaking first, Santorum began his 15-minute opening speech by acknowledging the welcome. “I appreciate that wonderful Southern hospitality,” Santorum said.
“As I say in every speech I give, this is the most important election in your lifetime, and I don’t care how old you are,” Santorum said. This election is important, he continued, because of Obama’s agenda, which “robs you of your freedom, your taxes,” and attempts to “regulate every aspect of your life.”
He mentioned the controversial natural-gas recovery method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which he said had been around for decades. “All of a sudden, now that it’s driving down the price of natural gas, the President wants to think about regulating it!”
Santorum said he entered the race to be the Republican nominee for president because of Obama’s national health care plan, dubbed Obamacare by Republicans.
“Obamacare is the reason I’m in this race,” Santorum said. “It wasn’t a rational decision, folks. I have seven children.”
With Obamacare, Santorum’s argument went, President Obama promised a right given to the people by the government. “When the government says they give you rights, they can take that right away,” Santorum said. “ They can threaten to take it away, and they can tell you how to exercise that right.” Government, Santorum said, is not the source of rights in this country.
At one point, Santorum began quoting the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their—” and he paused, waiting for the audience to fill in the blank with “creator.” The audience quickly obliged, and Santorum continued, “…with certain unalienable rights.”
While he aimed most of his attacks at Obama, he did slip in a jab at his primary opponents. The Republican front-runner, Mitt Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, provided the “template” for Obamacare, Santorum said, and Gingrich “lied through 20 debates” about supporting a national health-care program.
After finishing his segment, Santorum left the theatre and headed to a Montgomery rally.
When Newt Gingrich appeared, he first noted that he is from Columbus, Ga., and poked at comments Romney made Friday. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, told a Mississippi audience that he’d eaten a “biscuit and some cheesy grits” for breakfast and said “strange things are happening to me.”
“As someone who went to high school in Columbus, Ga., right next to Alabama, and then taught at West Georgia college, right next to Alabama, I kind of feel relatively at home here,” Gingrich said. “In fact, this morning when I had grits, it felt it was a very normal thing to do.”
“Although, I must confess, I was down along the coast so I had grits and shrimp,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich began by talking about energy. “I have suggested that, if we have developed our energy capacity to the degree we could that that would bring down the price of gasoline. The theory that supply-and-demand works — this is not something that Obama is very used to,” Gingrich said, and began tossing out metaphorical red meat to what turned out to be a pro-Newt crowd. “This is not a bureaucratic trickle-down, shovel-ready, Solyndra-investment, let’s-go-bankrupt-together policy,” Gingrich said.
Critics of a drill-anything policy have noted that the price of oil is set on the world market, and opening up America’s limited supplies would have little impact on the worldwide price of oil.
Soon, Gingrich returned to a standard stump line, a reference to the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. “First of all, Mr. President, I would be happy to debate you anywhere in the country, anytime,” Gingrich said, to uproarious applause. “I believe your energy speeches are so patently incoherent as to be indefensible.”
Gingrich offered to debate Obama at an oil rig, a refinery, a gas station. “I’d even be willing to meet you at a university campus, where you’ll feel comfortable,” Gingrich remarked, and said he’d allow Obama to use a teleprompter at the debate.
Gingrich then returned to energy. “The idea of peak energy is a stupid idea,” Gingrich said. “It doesn’t exist. It has been the basic of American energy policy for 40 years, and it is wrong.” Gingrich referred to Obama’s Secretary of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu, as the “Secretary of Anti-energy” and said “we should abolish the Department of Energy.”
Gingrich, like Santorum, advocated for the KeystoneXL oil pipeline and for more drilling.
Although he has a reputation for being long-winded, Gingrich’s speech, and his response to questions from the panel, was seemingly shorter than Santorum’s. He wrapped up his speech by comparing himself to Obama. Gingrich was interrupted at every opportunity by shouting and standing ovations from the crowd, which was estimated by an Alabama Theatre employee to be about 1,800 people.
“He believes in the writings of Saul Alinsky. I believe in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. He believes in apologizing to those who are killing our men and women. I will never apologize to those who are killing our men and women.”
Gingrich said that, if he elected, he’d ask Congress to convene before his inauguration and repeal Obamacare, the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and with executive orders he’d abolish all White House “czars,” move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and repeal “every anti-religious act” of the Obama administration.
“I can only do all of these things with your help,” Gingrich said. “The primary tomorrow really matters.”
Gingrich and his wife, Callista, stuck around after the event to greet fans at the foot of the Alabama Theatre stage.