5 takeaways from the Kemp forum on poverty held in South Carolina

Story highlights

  • U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan stands out with the crowd
  • Some attendees say the poverty forum delved deeply into policy without distractions
  • Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich and Marco Rubio attended

Columbia, South Carolina (CNN)In rare joint appearances, six Republican presidential candidates gathered here on Saturday to talk about ways to address poverty in America, speaking to voters in the crucial early primary state and beyond about why the GOP has the best answers.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott were moderators, and they questioned former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in small groups about how to address systemic problems at the Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity.
    It offered the candidates an infrequent chance to dive into policy discussions before a captive audience and to draw contrasts with one another without being in the combative setting of a debate.
    The event was also interrupted several times by a more frequent staple of the campaign trail: protesters who were angry with Rubio's record on immigration.
    Here are five takeaways from the Kemp Forum.

    1. No Trump, no problem

    The elephant not in the room on Saturday was front-runner Donald Trump, who was only briefly alluded to when Kasich and Rubio dealt with the protesters' disruptions and otherwise a nonfactor.
    Voters that spoke with CNN all praised the impact Trump has had on the race but said his bombast was not missed at the forum.
    "Well, poverty has not been something that he's been very close to, I would think," said Carolyn Church of Lexington, who thinks well of Trump. "But I do know there's stories of a lot of people he's helped." Church said she cleans houses and works retail.
    The format of the day was appreciated by Ann Shumpert, a retiree from Athens, Georgia, who came over for the day. She said she appreciates the attention Trump has brought to issues in the race but doesn't see him as presidential.
    "I think not having the major contender here has allowed the other candidates to really shine, because the emphasis was on what they have to say, which is being undermined by the theatrics of the debates," she said.

    2. Paul Ryan's a star

    It would have been easy to mistake the recently minted House speaker as one of the candidates on Saturday, as he deftly prodded them on the issue of poverty.
    Ryan has long tried to make a Republican case on fighting poverty in the House, and he has built a reputation around being a policy wonk with command of the issues. That background was on full display as he engaged with the candidates on their ideas to lift up all Americans and gave an opening address setting the stage for the day.
    "We're the only nation founded on an idea: The condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life," Ryan said at the outset. In a later session, he noted the day proved: "We are not just an opposition party, but we are a proposition party."
    The candidates heaped him with plenty of praise along the way.
    "The country's better off that you're the speaker," Bush said to Ryan as his panel began.
    Bush added at the end of his session, "I would follow the Ryan model, go listen first, go learn, develop the policies from the bottom up."
    It wasn't just the candidates that took notice. After the day wrapped, Gerry Gudgel, a school administrator from Columbia who says he's looking for a "compassionate conservative" and likes the governors in the race along with Marco Rubio said he wouldn't question Ryan in the field.
    "If the Republican Convention went into gridlock, I think Paul Ryan, somehow, put him on the ballot right away," Gudgel said.

    3. Bush stands apart

    The first panel of the day featured Bush, Carson and Christie, and from each candidates' first minutes, it was apparent that Bush suffers in a conversation about personal experiences with poverty.
    "As a kid growing up in poverty, I hated poverty," Carson said. "I was absolutely certain I was born into the wrong family."
    Carson grew up in a tough neighborhood of Detroit, and his story of defying the odds to become a Yale-educated pediatric neurosurgeon merits the "Lombardi trophy" equivalent for overcoming adversity, Ryan said.
    Christie also talked about knowing poverty through his mother.
    "My grandfather was gone, and my grandmother had to take three buses every day to go to work and my mother had to raise her two younger siblings, and they were abjectly poor," Christie said.
    Bush, who grew up as the grandson of a U.S. senator and son of a politician and diplomat who would go on to be president, lived a privileged childhood and didn't draw from his own experiences in his remarks.
    He instead focused on policy, an area he has tried to show off on the trail. He told the story of the first charter school he opened in Florida as governor and how the parents of the small school got to shape it.
    "We were getting it all ready, and on a Saturday, we walked out about 5 o'clock, all the volunteers, and we didn't have a flagpole outside the school. So I learned how to set cement," Bush recounted. Seeing the students saying the Pledge of Allegiance that Monday "was a phenomenal experience," he added.
    The contrast was noticeable throughout the day, as all the other candidates spoke about their life experiences.
    "I grew up in poverty. I understand what it's like to grow up poor," said Huckabee.
    "It's important and so good that the Republican Party has candidates running for president like John Kasich, who's father was a mailman, and my father, who was a bartender, and others who worked for a living and struggled to provide for their families," Rubio said, onstage next to Kasich. "It's one thing to read about these things; it's another thing to live them."

    4. The politician-outsider split shows in policy

    During the first panel, Ryan, Bush and Christie got into a deep discussion of the earned-income tax credit, a refundable tax credit for low-income Americans designed to aid families.
    Expanding the EITC has been a key issue for Ryan and proposed by President Barack Obama, and Christie noted that doubling it in his state was one of the "answers" to getting people off government benefits and into work. Bush cited it as an area of consensus.
    But Carson stuck to his assertion that America should move to a flat tax.
    "Any manipulation of the tax system for whatever good reason, I just don't agree with," Carson said, to applause. "I want a completely flat tax. ... I base it on the Bible on tithing. I think God's a pretty fair guy."
    Carson said that to get to people who may see more benefit in collecting unemployment than working is to "teach the populous" that those who work are "much better off."
    Christie hit back, saying encouraging people to get to work instead of collecting unemployment will take more than words.
    "A president's rhetoric is not going to make it so that somebody is going to lose their apartment because they go off support to go and take a minimum wage job, that person's not going to make that decision no matter how much the president tells them there's value in working," Christie said. "We need to be practical about it."
    There was one way that the politicians resembled the outsider, though: attacking Washington.
    "I'm not one of those people who thinks that the federal government is completely bad, just mostly," Carson joked.
    He found a compatriot in Christie that time.
    "If you leave (education) to the federal government, they swing a meat ax instead of a scalpel on these issues," Christie said.

    5. Time for GOP to get 'uncomfortable'

    Candidates throughout the day said it was time for the Republican Party to reach out to populations that haven't traditionally voted for them to convince them that the GOP actually has better policies for them.
    Christie said Republicans need to go to places such as African-American churches and barrios and be in listening mode.
    "We as Republicans have to go back to campaigning in places where we're uncomfortable," Christie said. "We should stop going to Chamber of Commerce luncheons."
    He said the GOP has "narrowed" its focus too much in excluding voters.
    "Our party has failed in going into those places because we've said, 'Well we don't get instant gratification back,' " he said.
    Carson noted a generally warm reception he got at Al Sharpton's offices despite initial skepticism.
    "I think we have to go into the den of the lion," Carson said. "When we go there and we talk about what we believe, they actually resonate with it. ... We have much better policies than the Democrats do."
    The conversation comes as Republicans are increasingly concerned about the changing demographic make-up of the country and an increasingly diverse population that tends to support Democrats. Mobilizing nontraditional Republican voters is seen by many of the campaigns as critical to winning both primaries and the general election.