Perry, Gingrich, and Santorum Enter the 36 Chambers (of Commerce)

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 17 2012 6:42 PM

Perry, Gingrich, and Santorum Enter the 36 Chambers (of Commerce)

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- You can only take town hall questions from the proletariat for so many hours. Three candidates -- RIck Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum -- closed out Tuesday by addressing the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce's Business Speaks meet-up, giving 30 minutes of speech and Q&A to a captive (but receptive) crowd of legislators and businesspeople.

The stakes were low. Outside the room, after Perry spoke, I ran into one of his better-known South Carolina endorsers, State Rep. Alan Clemmons, who put on his game face. His candidate was lagging behind Ron Paul in the polls.

"I'd be proud to support Gov. Perry in the fall," he said. "If the voters of South Carolina don't see things that way, I'll still be proud to support our candidate."

This was a Perry sort of crowd -- he's always good with ALEC or Chamber audiences -- and despite his uh-infused speaking style (a big contrast with the Gingrich and Santorum bullet trains), he kept to a formula: Big promise, big applause. A moderated question from the audience asked him what President Perry would do to the National Labor Relations Board.

"There wouldn't be one!" he said. The crowd lit up at that. "I want to get rid of a number of agencies, and some of them are hard, but that one's easy."

Gingrich, who was more comfortable mentioning specific local economic concerns (the port of Charleston, the "tragic corridor" of poverty between Columbia and Charleston), hit the same soft spot. "If I were Speaker of the House right now," he said, "I would defund the NLRB." Only Santorum passed on a chance to line the NLRB with plastic explosives and push the "detonate" button. "We have to look at the law that allows the NLRB to act in such an irresponsible way," he said. "I don't know if you'll be successful in the United States Senate unless you have 60 votes defunding it." Oh, pragmatism!

The closest thing to a tough question: What the hell was the problem with Bain Capital, anyway? Perry didn't have much of an answer, but Gingrich was ready, pronouncing the criticism of his attacks "one of the bigger acts of baloney in modern times." (I want a list of the others.)

"I'm proud of real capitalism," said Gingrich. "I'm proud of people who say, I'm in it with you." Not Bain, though. (If he wanted to, he could put out that Romney only joined Bain Capital when he was assured he could return to Bain & Company proper if the venture fund failed. "I think it's exploitative. It's not defensible ... This is not venture capitalism."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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