1 of 4
Sean Rayford, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, right speaks with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., left, at an economic forum, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Columbia, S.C. Huckabee pitched his “fair tax,” a single-rate consumption tax to replace all other taxes on wages, investments on inheritance. “It’s a powerful unlocking of the economy,” Huckabee said, noting that he would allow something similar to the Earned Income Tax Credit to ease the tax burden on low-income households.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Republican presidential candidates said Saturday their party must do more to convince poor Americans that conservative policies — and not an active federal government —will expand economic opportunity.

But the White House hopefuls, addressing a conservative economic forum in the early voting state of South Carolina, don't agree on all the details, particularly on taxes.Moderated by House Speaker Paul Ryan, the event gave a half dozen candidates the chance to champion long-standing conservative ideas about alleviating poverty, such as letting states spend federal money on safety net programs without federal strings, and spending public money on independent charter schools and vouchers for private-school tuition.

Yet when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bragged that he doubled a key tax credit for low-income workers in his state, he met opposition from 2016 rival Ben Carson, who countered that the federal Earned Income Tax Credit is a "manipulation" of the tax code.

Carson calls for an across-the-board tax rate, with no deductions or credits for any household or business. He criticized progressive income tax rates — the framework that has endured though decades of Republican and Democratic administration. "That's called socialism," he said. "That doesn't work in America."

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee pitched his "fair tax," a single-rate consumption tax to replace all other taxes on wages, investments and inheritance. "It's a powerful unlocking of the economy," Huckabee said. However, he said he would allow something similar to the Earned Income Tax Credit to ease the tax burden on low-income households.

Responding to Carson, Christie said he does not necessarily prefer the complications of the existing tax code. "If we were starting from the beginning ... we could do things a lot differently," Christie said. But, "We have to be practical."

The conference came as Republicans try to improve their standing among poorer Americans. According to surveys of 2012 voters, President Barack Obama won 63 percent of votes from people who earned less than $30,000 per year. He won 57 percent among those with income between $30,000 and $49,999.