Despite the influential host, Senator Jim DeMint, and the high-profile attendees -- including every Republican presidential candidate save Texas Governor Rick Perry and former ambassador Jon Huntsman -- Monday's Palmetto Freedom Forum in South Carolina was a modest affair. The guests at the invitation-only event were the usual array of suited white men -- with a sprinkling of women and minorities -- and were just numerous enough to fill the venue, an ordinary-looking convention center in the middle of Columbia, the state capital.
The aim of the forum, organized by the American Principles Project, a Tea Party activist group, was to give the leading Republican presidential candidates an opportunity to explore conservative ideas without the adversarial atmosphere of a regular debate. The question on most minds was how loyal the candidates were to Tea Party principles.
"I'm looking for a governance paradigm that is consistent and reliable -- I'm interested in hearing how you approach issues generally," said freshman Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, a guest at the forum. "If you say you're a limited government conservative, what does that mean?"
"I'm looking forward to longer periods where media people aren't poking them about Coke and Pepsi," said Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, another guest and Tea Party stalwart. "I want to know what their filter is - how they will decide on the issues."
The truth is that neither Gowdy nor Cuccinelli needs to worry about the candidates' definition of limited government or how they'll decide on the issues; well before Labor Day, in speeches, debate performances, and policy papers, each candidate had already pledged their fealty to the Tea Party vision of extremely limited government. In a dramatic contrast with the GOP primary contests in 2000 and 2008, where various Republicans differed hugely on major issues, there are few divides among the current candidates.
Erstwhile moderate Mitt Romney, for example, took the floor with a denunciation of President Barack Obama's approach to the Constitution: "I don't think I've ever seen an administration that's gone further afield from the Constitution than this administration." Romney pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act, accused public-sector unions of "corruption" for donating to politicians, and, in an interesting bit of alternative history, blamed Chris Dodd and Barney Frank for the collapse of the housing market. In one of the punchier moments of the evening, the former Massachusetts governor answered Senator DeMint's question on international affairs -- "What would you do about our foreign policy?" -- with four simple words, "I would have one," a response that earned his only bit of laughter and genuine applause from the audience.
Unlike Romney, who doesn't have a great relationship with the Tea Party -- FreedomWorks says that his record "represents everything the tea party stands against" -- Michele Bachmann was working with her natural constituency, and her rhetoric reflected the extent to which she understands Tea Party voters. "My guiding principle will be that the government works best when it acts within the limits of the Constitution," said the Minnesota congresswoman in her opening statement. "When the people of the United States place this awesome responsibility and privilege to be president, what they have given is the ability to act under the Constitution and not place oneself over the Constitution."
Likewise, Georgia businessman Herman Cain followed suit with this allusion to Thomas Jefferson, a favorite of Tea Partiers. "When any form of government becomes destructive of those ideals, it is right of the people to abolish it," Cain said, explaining his view of the founding principles. "What the American people are saying right now is that we need to do some altering and abolishing."
The questioners pressed the candidates on a range of issues, from the proper role of government in economic policy, to international affairs, immigration, same-sex marriage, and abortion. On each issue, the candidates hewed to Tea Party orthodoxy.
Asked about same-sex marriage by conservative lawyer Robert George, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said: "I think we either need to look at legislation or a constitutional amendment. Given the current state of what's happened, we probably need an amendment."
Representative Ron Paul, whose presence attracted a small crowd of local supporters outside of the convention center, reiterated his support for limited government and pressed for massive cuts to the federal government. "Everything [in the budget] should be up for grabs", said the Texas congressman to loud applause from the audience.
The only leading Republican presidential hopeful not in attendance was Governor Rick Perry, who, after a campaign event that morning, returned to Texas to oversee efforts to control wildfires. Several attendees expressed disappointment that they couldn't hear Perry - who entered the race at the beginning of last month and now commands majority support among Republicans nationwide - but were still satisfied with the forum. "I was impressed with the field, and I thought the format lent itself well to in-depth discussion. I was very impressed with everyone," said Stephen Brown, the former party chair for Greenville County, South Carolina.
The entire forum, which clocked in at two hours, revealed few, if any, areas of disagreement between the candidates and the questioners, with each candidate endorsing everything from stricter limits on legal immigration to the need for national anti-abortion legislation. In that sense, the candidates were clearly vying for Jim DeMint's endorsement, which would bring a healthy dose of Tea Party credibility to whomever received it. In a post-forum meeting with reporters, DeMint said that he would eventually endorse a candidate and dropped hints that Mitt Romney -- who received his endorsement in the previous election cycle -- might not be the one to get it. "I think the [individual] mandate takes us down the wrong road, even if it's on the state level," said DeMint as he spoke about Romney. "I'm not going to disqualify him on one issue, but sometimes one issue is all you need."
If Romney is hoping for DeMint's endorsement as a way to keep Tea Partiers from flocking to his tent, then this is a bad sign. But if he -- or any candidate -- is hoping for DeMint's endorsement as a way to build credibility, it might not be necessary.
Endorsements are a way of showing certain voters that they can trust the ideas of the candidate in question. But as the forum demonstrated, Tea Partiers already have a monopoly on the views of the Republican presidential candidates. Indeed, as we'll likely see again during Wednesday's debate in California, the GOP presidential field is uniformly right; regardless of who wins this contest, the Republican base can rest easy knowing that the nomination has gone to one of them.
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