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Presidential Candidate Asa Hutchinson Talks Economy, Security, Unity During South Carolina Stop

Presidential Candidate Asa Hutchinson Talks Economy, Security, Unity During South Carolina Stop by: Skylar Laird, The Post and Courier May 23, 2023

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COLUMBIA, SC - Asa Hutchinson, the Republican former governor of Arkansas who’s running for president in 2024, knows he has some stiff competition in South Carolina.

Hutchinson announced his run for the presidency April 26, joining a field that includes former South Carolina governor and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and, as of May 22, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott.

“If I come in third to them, I know I’m in good hands,” Hutchinson said during a lunch with the Richland County GOP on May 23.

Also in the mix is former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner in early South Carolina polls.

Hutchinson’s speech in Columbia focused on balancing the national budget, securing the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and bringing together a politically divided country.

As a potential default on the country’s national debt creeps closer amid partisan discussions, Hutchinson called for Congress to once again balance the national budget — something he said hasn’t happened in decades.

In one major change, Hutchinson wants to reduce the number of federal employees, excluding those working in defense, by 10 percent, streamlining services and cutting the amount spent on personnel. The plan is similar to one he implemented in Arkansas, in which he cut staff by 14 percent.

Hutchinson said he also wants to give states more control over who is eligible for Medicaid, allowing provisions like one Hutchinson suggested that would require recipients to work in some capacity to receive benefits.

“We need to loosen that up, give the states more flexibility,” Hutchinson said. “That will help control spending.”

Not on the chopping block were funds for federal law enforcement, particularly when it comes to the U.S. border with Mexico, as pandemic-era rules lapsed that had allowed many migrants to be turned away.

Once third-in-command in border security for the Department of Homeland Security, Hutchinson said the federal government needs to put more money into securing its border with Mexico, including erecting a wall and speeding up the process of deciding who gets to stay in the U.S.

“You’ve got to change the whole system,” he said.

Hutchinson called on the federal government to generally strengthen its foreign security policies and up its involvement in Ukraine during Russia’s invasion. On top of that, he said he would narrow the scope of work done by the Federal Bureau of Investigation — both stances that differ starkly from Trump’s.

“Those who say we ought to defund the FBI or abolish the FBI, they’re just demagoguing the issue,” Hutchinson said.

To get these changes done, Hutchinson said, he would need to first unify political parties that have become increasingly polarized — a change he attributed at least in part to the popularity of social media.

That doesn’t mean compromising his values, he said; instead, it involves building relationships across party lines.

For example, when protesters came out in Little Rock in force following the murder of George Floyd, Hutchinson said he mobilized state and federal troops to make arrests but also formed a task force of activists and police officers to propose policy changes.

“Today, we have leaders that capitalize on our division, and they push the division and they further divide us, and I don’t believe that is presidential leadership,” Hutchinson said.

The former governor, who served from 2015 to early 2023, pointed to his track record to underscore his points. When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, he kept businesses open despite the health risks, spearheaded tax cuts and signed a law making veterans’ retirement pay exempt from income taxes, he said.

Hutchinson said his edge lies in his experience both as governor and in national government, where he worked in Congress and administration under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The former governor also has a South Carolina connection: He got his bachelor’s degree in accounting from Bob Jones University, an evangelical private college in Greenville, where he met his wife.

“All the candidates get to decide about South Carolina, but I think I have a home here, I think I can be competitive here, and we don’t know what the future holds,” Hutchinson said.

Members of the Richland County GOP, which represents a political minority in the state’s second-largest county, said they were keeping an open mind.

“I’m holding out,” said Deb Dollarhide, president of the Capital City Republican Women group. “I’m listening to all of them and seeing how they respond to a lot of important issues, and then I’ll make my decision.”

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