AIKEN — If elected president, Newt Gingrich said, on his first day in office he would use his executive powers to open up drilling for natural gas off the coast of South Carolina.
The move would create high-paying jobs in the Palmetto State and help free the U.S. from its dependence on foreign oil, Gingrich told a crowd of more than 700 Tuesday evening at the University of South Carolina Aiken Convocation Center.
Organizers said all five Republican candidates had been invited to speak at the GOP event billed as the “Last Word Before the First in the South Primary,” but only Gingrich showed, speaking and taking questions for more than an hour.
The former House speaker’s take on energy policy got a warm reception from the crowd, which included abolishing what he called the U.S. Department of “Anti-energy.” His proposal to open up gas drilling in South Carolina waters brought cheers.
Gingrich said he would use the natural gas royalties to rebuild the Port of Charleston to make it ready for the larger ships expected to be passing through the widened and deepened Panama Canal by 2014.
“I want to be the president that comes back to Charleston to see container ships take goods manufactured in South Carolina to China to be sold in Walmarts there,” he said.
Other proposals Gingrich offered included repealing the health care reform law, reshaping the judiciary and overhauling Social Security to allow individual retirement accounts, which he said would transform everyone in the system into capitalists with real assets that could be passed on to their families.
“Everyone will be saving and investing,” he said. “We don’t have to fight over when you retire. It’s your money. You get to decide what to do with it.”
Gingrich painted opponent Mitt Romney as a moderate who has neither the experience nor the bona fide conservative credentials to go “toe to toe” with President Obama. He said the only reason he is trailing the former Massachusetts governor is because the conservative vote is split between three other candidates.
He hopes that will change by Saturday’s South Carolina primary.
“You need to ask, ‘What is it going to take to defeat Obama and fundamentally change Washington?’” he said. “If we can unite the conservatives by Saturday, you will have picked a candidate who will defeat Obama.”
Gingrich’s number and array of detailed ideas impressed Tyler Cook, who at 17 won’t get to vote in a primary but will be old enough by the time the general election comes in November.
Cook, who was with a group of 10 classmates from Grovetown High School, said he had also seen Texas Gov. Rick Perry speak in North Augusta and has hopes to see more before he settles on a candidate.
“Gingrich seems to have a lot more developed ideas than Perry,” Cook said. “Perry says he will change things, but Gingrich has actual ideas to back up his plans.”
Tracy Roden, Cook’s Advanced Placement government teacher, said she wants her students to have a deeper understanding of how the government works and encourage them to take part in the process.
“I basically want the kids to actually see what they have been reading about in their books,” Roden said. “I want it to come alive for them.”