State Sen. Lee Bright took frequent shots at U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham at a forum in Columbia on Friday, criticizing the Republican incumbent for negotiating with countries with ties to U.S. enemies and saying if voters do not make a change in the June 10 GOP primary, “We will be in another war, we will have amnesty – I guarantee it.”
Later, as candidates took turns on the forum’s stage, Graham countered those claims indirectly in answering a question on his approach to using military force overseas: “If you don’t have partnerships, then you’re going to have to use military force all the time.”
Five of the six Republicans who Graham is facing in his bid to win a third term participated in the forum, sponsored by the conservative Palmetto Family Council, at the University of South Carolina: Columbia pastor Det Bowers, Sen. Bright of Spartanburg, Easley businessman Richard Cash, Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor and Charleston PR executive Nancy Mace. Columbia attorney Benjamin Dunn did not attend.
Democrat Jay Stamper of Columbia did attend, saying he was glad to be there. “It’s supremely ironic that I’m here,” Stamper said to laughs. “This is one of the few opportunities I have to speak out.”
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The meeting was the first public event where Graham and the Republicans hoping to unseat him in the GOP primary have appeared on the same stage, though not at the same time. The candidates will debate face-to-face on ETV next Saturday.
The candidates were asked first how they would protect family values when divorce, domestic violence and fatherless households are on the rise – a question that suited the candidates who have made their Christian values a priority.
Cash said his top priority would be fighting to preserve the “sanctity of life” and to protect the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
“As a Republican Party, we’ve got to be willing to stand for what we know to be right,” Cash said.
Bill Connor said he would work to create a “biblical form of government,” which he believes the country’s founders intended.
Bowers spoke about the roles of men and women in marriage – a topic that he discussed in a controversial sermon that the D.C.-based Politico website and newspaper reported on in April.
However, Bowers’ message was different this time.
In the sermon that Politico wrote about, Bowers said in situations where men have cheated on their wives, the women have loved their children too much. “I find that in about 95 percent of broken marriages, though the husband’s the one that ran out on his wife, the wife loves her children more than she does her husband. ... That is an abominable idolatry.”
Friday night, Bowers talked about how God made Eve from Adam’s rib – a sacrifice on Adam’s part.
“As long as the man will sacrifice, you’ll see the marriage being strengthened,” Bowers said. “Does the woman sacrifice too? Well, certainly. But he has the primary responsibility.”
Graham, of Seneca, got only a few grumbles from the live audience when discussing the federal debt and deficits. He said the key to getting the nation’s fiscal house in order lies in entitlement reforms, including adopting a proposal that he has introduced that would “means test” Medicare, limiting benefits to the wealthy, and asking the wealthy to retire later and young people to work longer.
Graham also said he opposes federal carbon-emission regulations and would support getting rid of Common Core, state-controlled education standards – not adopted at the federal level – that are a popular punching bag for conservatives.
On foreign policy, Graham reiterated that the worst threat to the United States abroad is a nuclear Iran that would give nuclear weapons to America’s enemies.
Graham’s challengers hit him for his support of American intervention in Syria and Egypt.
“Who in their right mind would want to put boots on the ground in Syria?” asked Bright.
“You’ve got Assad and the Iranian guard on one side; al-Qaida, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. Let ’em fight!” Bright said, drawing laughs from the audience.
On foreign policy, Afghanistan war veteran Connor said, “Sen. Graham made a terrible mistake” when he traveled to that country at Democratic President Barack Obama’s request in an attempt to bring the warring Egyptian military and Muslim Brotherhood together and end violence in that country.
The military was trying to protect Coptic Christians who were about to “lose everything,” Connor said.
But, he added, “There are times when we’ve got to send troops overseas, and I’m willing to do that for a vital national interest.”
On immigration reform, the Palmetto Family Council’s Oran Smith asked candidates to outline how they would “effectively” deal with the nation’s immigration conundrum. Smith said much-needed, “common-sense reforms” include programs for visiting workers and more visas for high-skilled workers.
Most of Graham’s challengers said that increased border security should be a top priority and existing laws should be enforced, adding illegal immigrants should not be given incentives to break the law and come to the United States.
Charleston public relations executive Nancy Mace said Congress should get to decide when the U.S. border is secure. Connor said overstayed visas need to be policed.
Graham, in his final pitch, cast himself as a problem solver:
“Fix problems,” he said. “Don’t talk about it. We’re living in dangerous times. Don’t let our country dissolve into Greece. Fix entitlements. Ask both parties to do things they don’t like for the betterment of the country.”