WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The 2016 U.S. election year was supposed to be the one in which Republicans made tackling poverty a big theme.
Chastened by the 2012 election loss and Republican hopeful Mitt Romney’s comments that the lower-income “47 percent” of America would never support him, party leaders wanted to show that they, not just Democrats, cared about poverty.
But candidates such as Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Marco Rubio, who can talk in great detail about policies which they say prove conservatism creates opportunity for all Americans, have seen their economic plans overshadowed in a noisy Republican campaign.
With immigration and national security leading the Republicans’ national debates, and outsider candidates like Donald Trump grabbing attention, the conservative anti-poverty effort has been shunted aside.
Republican leaders worried about broadening their base, as well as conservative policy experts, hope to change the narrative on Saturday, when more than half of the Republican pack seeking the White House is set to participate in a poverty forum in South Carolina.
“If we are going to be successful at the ballot box, so to speak, we are going to have to make sure that our conversation encompasses the whole of America,” said the state’s Republican U.S. senator, Tim Scott, who will moderate the event along with House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan.
The forum is sponsored by the Jack Kemp Foundation, named for the late Republican lawmaker who called himself a “bleeding heart” conservative due to his work on housing, welfare and other poverty programs.
Kemp was a mentor to Ryan, a proud budget wonk and vice presidential candidate four years ago who has since released his own anti-poverty agenda.
Often unnoticed amid the debate among Republicans over illegal immigration and terrorism, some of the current crop of candidates are putting forward details of how they would fight poverty, claiming liberal attempts to help the poor have not worked.
Bush, the former Florida governor, on Friday unveiled a new welfare reform proposal ahead of the South Carolina forum as part of his campaign to win the Republican nomination for the Nov. 8 election.
Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, who often talks about his modest upbringing with a bartender father and a mother who worked as a maid, proposed a new tax credit for families with children.
Ohio Governor Kasich said in announcing his bid for the White House that he would work on behalf of drug addicts, mentally ill and poor people.
Republicans have touted plans to reform vocational training or higher education in the party’s televised debates, but the most recent televised encounter focused on national security. There was almost no mention of the poor.
The five top Republicans in Reuters/Ipsos opinion polls - Trump, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Rubio and Bush - have television ads on immigration, terrorism and their backgrounds, but not explicitly about poverty.
When poverty does come up, policy details can be light.
Cruz, asked about entitlement programs in Spencer, Iowa, responded that the safety net should look like “trampolines and not hammocks,” with work requirements for welfare.
Then he pivoted to partisan politics. “I thank God some well-meaning liberal didn’t come put his arm around my dad as a teenage immigrant,” said Cruz, whose father was born in Cuba.
Jimmy Kemp, Jack Kemp’s son and head of the foundation, said candidates had been forced to respond to voters’ concerns about terrorism. The economy and unemployment were Americans’ top concerns for much of 2015, until terrorism worries spiked late in the year, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.
Americans’ frustration with politicians was also evident in the public’s skepticism about Washington’s ability to fix their problems. Trump’s ideas about bringing back manufacturing jobs to America represented more of a “trust me” approach than substantive policy, Kemp said.
“People may kind of just think that we’re going to have a government by executive order going forward, and so maybe they’re thinking, well, we might as well have somebody like Mr. Trump in there,” Kemp said.
In 2012, voters said in one poll that Obama cared more about people like them than did Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, by a margin of 81 percent to 18.
“Who cares more about people like you? That’s how Romney lost that to Barack Obama,” said Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
After the 2012 loss, Ryan responded with a tour of inner cities, organized with the help of Bob Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who advocates for putting more power in the hands of poor communities.
Generally a supporter of Republicans, Woodson said the South Carolina forum is an opportunity to prod candidates to spend more time in poor neighborhoods and speak out more on the issue.
“Most people have some brokenness in their family,” he said, adding they want to know what politicians will do for the least of these.
Additional reporting by Michelle Conlin; Editing by Caren Bohan and Alistair Bell