Fiscal Conservatives Discuss GOP Debate

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Melissa Block watched Monday night's Republican debate with a small group of voters in Greenville, S.C.: three business people and two housewives. They describe themselves as fiscal conservatives, first and foremost — not social conservatives or evangelicals — and Mitt Romney's message appeals to many of them. The attacks on Romney's record at Bain Capital do not register with these voters, and they see no point in the demands for him to release his tax returns. What does interest them: business experience, less government and long-term change to tackle the debt.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our co-host Melissa Block is also in South Carolina this week, and she watched last night's debate with a small group of Republican voters in Greenville.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: They describe themselves as fiscally conservatives, but they are not the social evangelical conservatives that make up so much of the Republican electorate here. As it happens, none of the five are native to South Carolina, and they've all done pretty well in this economy. Nate Lipscomb is 64. He is senior vice president with Greenville's minor league baseball team, the Drive, and a Mitt Romney supporter.

NATE LIPSCOMB: Now I tell you, I'd give up some minimal assurances of, you know, acid test deliverables just to make sure that we can replace the current administration with a more limited government, conservative sort of president.

BLOCK: Dee Kivett is 41. She's a Tea Party supporter with four kids, who runs her own aerospace automotive consulting business. Going into the debate, she liked Ron Paul.

DEE KIVETT: He doesn't necessarily present himself in the most professional manner in the debate. But if you look at the man's heart, I mean, where is he coming from? What does he really want to do? Who wants to be the servant? Who wants to help the company - I mean, the country? Ron Paul appears to have the bigger heart.

BLOCK: 73-year-old Diane Cochran(ph) considers herself independent. Not a pro-lifer, she says. She's a housewife and wavering between Romney and Newt Gingrich.

DIANE COCHRAN: I really listen for integrity and intelligence and the ability to understand how complex our government is and our world is. We really need to concentrate on our economic recovery and the ability of people in the federal government to work together.

BLOCK: And finally, Matt and Liz Cotner. They're both 37. She's a stay-at-home mom with two young kids. He's a commercial banker who served in the military. Liz is undecided. Matt has already voted absentee for Mitt Romney.

MATT COTNER: I think he's done things with the Olympics that were extremely impressive from a management's capacity. I think he was a good governor. I think he is a moral person. I think he is focused on making things work. You know, like Diane, I'm looking for some grownups.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Welcome to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center and the Republican presidential debate.

BLOCK: As the debate started, some things became clear very quickly. The question of whether Mitt Romney should release his tax records doesn't register.

LIPSCOMB: I think it's a non-issue.

COTNER: Tell me why that's important. I don't know how that's anyone's business.

BLOCK: And the challengers' attacks on Romney's record at Bain Capital, they're not taking a bite.

COTNER: I don't think he gets up every morning or any businessperson gets up and says, how can I destroy the lives of people? You know, that is psychopath. I mean, that, you know, but unfortunately, not every investment goes well.

LIPSCOMB: There's - as Matt said, you're going to have some winners and some losers like that, but being able to clean out the waste is part of what we're looking for our government to do at this point in history.

BLOCK: Rick Perry doesn't register at all with these voters; Rick Santorum, barely. The questions in the debate about foreign policy, gun ownership don't seem to engage them. Liz Cotner sees those as a distraction.

LIZ COTNER: I think there's a lot of challenges ahead of us, and I don't feel like the challenges are gun control. I don't feel like the challenges are abortion. I don't feel like those are the things that are going to give the everyday citizen confidence in their government or confidence in their country that may be a little shaky right now.

BLOCK: But taxes, the role of government, the future of Medicare and Social Security, those are front and center on everyone's mind here. Matt Cotner, the banker, is thinking about his young kids' future.

COTNER: The thing that I would like to see is someone to come out with a plan to say there's going to be shared sacrifice from everybody. You know, Matt, you thought you're going to retire at 65 or 67 or whatever. You know what, you're living longer. You're going to have to retire at 72. You know, Matt, if you do become a millionaire, you're not going to be collecting what you are collecting with Social Security. It just - we can't do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Thank you all very much. That is the end of our debate.

BLOCK: At the end of the two hour debate, no minds were changed. Dee Kivett, the Ron Paul supporter, felt a bit disenchanted.

KIVETT: I don't think that anyone helped me get further down the road as to understanding where they really stand on an issue than what I already came into it thinking.

BLOCK: Diane, you came in thinking maybe Mitt Romney, maybe...

COCHRAN: I'm still as undecided as ever.

BLOCK: Liz Cotner found herself liking Newt Gingrich's ideas, but she worries he's too polarizing.

COTNER: I feel like people either really like him or they really don't. They've already made up their mind and whether he comes in with great ideas or not, he's going to have a battle wherever he goes and it's unfortunate. Even if he might, in the end, be the best candidate, he may not be the best person for the job.

BLOCK: Baseball executive Nate Lipscomb's appraisal: Santorum's too testy. Gingrich is smart, but yes, polarizing. Ron Paul, too extreme.

LIPSCOMB: So I'm back to Romney and hot unhappily so. I think he's got the right skill set and the right experience that - I like what he did in the private sector. That gives me a great deal of confidence.

BLOCK: And Mitt Romney supporter Matt Cotner ends with this thought.

COTNER: We're much more common than different, and right now, collectively as a nation, I think we're all hurting. And I think that's what we're looking for is someone who will work together to solve the financial problems, to make it better for all Americans.

BLOCK: And on that note of comity, our group of five headed home from the debate back to the torrent of bitterly negative ads that are saturating the airwaves here.

I'm Melissa Block in Greenville, South Carolina.

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