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Seeking To Expand Voter Reach, GOP Leaders Hold Poverty Forum


Republicans have been trying to figure out how to reach new groups of voters since their defeat in the presidential election four years ago. Now some party leaders are saying the GOP should do a better job of addressing the concerns of low-income Americans.

As NPR's Sarah McCammon reports from Columbia, S.C., several presidential candidates made that point in a forum on poverty yesterday.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: House Speaker Paul Ryan began the day with a traditional Republican message about the American dream.


PAUL RYAN: You work hard. You play by the rules. You can get ahead.

MCCAMMON: But Ryan said it's not that simple.


RYAN: Here's the problem. If it is not true for everybody (laughter) - and there are a lot of people who do not believe it's there for them - then it's really not true at all, is it?

MCCAMMON: Ryan said making that true for everyone should be a priority for the GOP. He co-moderated the event at a packed convention center in Columbia with South Carolina senator Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the U.S. Senate. Scott said there's a perception that Republicans don't understand poverty, but he grew up poor with a single mom.


TIM SCOTT: And what I hear in the neighborhoods - and I go see my grandfather every week - is not requests for more government assistance - it's a leg up.

MCCAMMON: Scott and Ryan were joined on stage by six Republican presidential hopefuls who shared their personal stories, designed to send the message that they get it.


BEN CARSON: I hated poverty.

MARCO RUBIO: And my father, who was a bartender...

CHRIS CHRISTIE: The first time I've learned about poverty was from both my parents.

MCCAMMON: That was Dr. Ben Carson, Florida senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey governor Chris Christie. The candidates said they have solutions that don't involve bigger government, like reforming education, adjusting the tax code and getting the private sector more involved.

Hearing Republicans speak of poverty as a priority felt like a turning point to Reverend David Beckmann. He's with the anti-hunger group Bread for the World.

DAVID BECKMANN: We've come a long way.

MCCAMMON: Beckmann's group spoke out against cuts to federal anti-poverty programs proposed by Ryan when he was chairman of the House Budget Committee.

BECKMANN: I think there's still a lot of uncertainty about whether the Republican Party is really going to push to reduce poverty. The people who are here have got to fight other elements in the party that are not that interested in poor people.

MCCAMMON: There's a lot at stake in this for the GOP. Since 2012, Republicans have been talking about how to reach more young people and minorities. Christie said Republicans should campaign outside their comfort zone.


CHRISTIE: Fact is - we need to be going into African-American churches. We need to be going into the Hispanic communities and the barrios to make sure that - you go there first to listen. Don't go there first with some, like, 10-point plan because they don't want to hear it.

MCCAMMON: But polls show that reaching those groups is a challenge for the Republican Party. Not present at the poverty forum were two candidates known for their tough rhetoric on immigration, Donald Trump and Texas senator Ted Cruz. Both were busy campaigning in Iowa, where they've been neck and neck at the top of the pack.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Columbia, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.