FACT CHECK: Distortions in GOP debate

By Calvin Woodward

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 17 2012 3:25 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidates, from left to right: Texas Gov. Rick Perry; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, participate in the South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Monday, Jan. 16, 2012.

Charles Dharapak, Pool, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney ignored the most significant expansion of trade ties in nearly two decades when he accused the Obama administration Monday night of doing nothing to open new markets. Rick Santorum claimed to be taking purely the high road in campaign ads even as a new one from him veered from that path.

Newt Gingrich mischaracterized the Chilean retirement system that he favors as a partial model for the United States, declaring that the system of private accounts is voluntary when it's not.

So it went in the latest Republican presidential debate as the candidates took shortcuts with complex realities and committed some outright distortions. A look at some of the claims and how they compare with the facts:

ROMNEY: "This president has opened up no new markets for American goods around the world in his three years, even as European nations and China have opened up 44."

THE FACTS: Actually, Obama revived Bush-administration-era free-trade pacts with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, all passed by Congress in October, in the biggest round of trade liberalization since the North American Free Trade Agreement and other pacts of that era.

In particular, the agreement with South Korea is designed to break down barriers between the United States and the world's 15th-largest economy. The South Korea deal has the potential to create as many as 280,000 American jobs, according to a recent assessment by the staff of the U.S. International Trade Commission, and to boost exports by more than $12 billion.

Obama also, on a recent trip to Asia, endorsed an Asia-Pacific free-trade pact that would also boost U.S. exports to Asia. With economies weak, the benefits of freer trade may not be immediate but Romney was incorrect to say President Barack Obama has opened "no new markets."

SANTORUM: "My ads have been positive. The only ad that I've ever put up has contrasted myself with the other candidates, and does so in a way talking about issues."

THE FACTS: Santorum is coming out with an ad this week accusing Romney of being "just like Obama" and saying Romney "once bragged he's even more liberal than Ted Kennedy on social issues," two negative assertions that go beyond a mere look at issues.

As a Massachusetts senate candidate in 1994, Romney wrote to a group of gay Republicans that outlined a plan to do better than Kennedy to make "equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern." But that's not bragging about liberalism, and Romney is hardly more liberal than the late senator — or Obama — on social issues. Romney, for example, supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

Santorum has, in fact, stayed positive in the campaign but the new ad is a departure from that.

GINGRICH on Chile's system of private retirement accounts: "First of all, it's totally voluntary. If you want to stay in the current system, stay in it. If you are younger and you want to go and take a personal savings account, which would be a Social Security savings account, you can take it."

THE FACTS: There is nothing voluntary about Chile's system. It requires that all workers contribute 10 percent of their salaries to private pension plans, plus other fees for insurance, instead of a government program like Social Security.

Workers had a choice when Chile created the private pensions in 1981 but after that phase-in, all new employees have been required to contribute 10 percent of their first $33,360 in annual wages, choosing among five funds whose investments range from safe bonds to riskier stocks.

The Chile model was also a favorite of Herman Cain when he was in the Republican race. He, too, mischaracterized the system as optional.

ROMNEY: "We invested in well over 100 different businesses. And the people have looked at the places that have added jobs and lost jobs and that record is pretty much available for people to take a close look at."

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