Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann said President Barack Obama has skirted the U.S. Constitution on several fronts, as she and rivals in the race to challenge him next year courted support from tea party activists at U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint's forum Monday in South Carolina.
Bachmann criticized Obama for the healthcare overhaul he helped shepherd into law last year, saying it paves the way for “socialized medicine.” She also attacked his hiring of high-level advisers — sometimes called “czars” — who aren’t vetted by Congress, and his refusal to defend federal marriage and immigration laws, as she billed herself the “constitutional conservative” in the Republican race.
“The current United States government and its framework is acting outside of the bounds of the Constitution,” Bachmann, 55, a Minnesota congresswoman, said at the forum in Columbia, the capital of the state that holds one of the nomination contest’s earliest primaries.
Organizers of the Palmetto Freedom Forum were DeMint, a fiscal and social conservative who draws support from tea party adherents, as well as Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican and another of the movement’s favorites.
Though much of the campaign’s debate so far has focused on the struggling U.S. economy and the nation’s 9.1 percent unemployment rate, the forum spotlighted questions about governmental power, the Constitution and the Supreme Court, issues that animate the tea party movement. It also featured discussions of social issues, including abortion and marriage.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney joined in questioning Obama’s adherence to the Constitution, saying he doesn’t think “I’ve ever seen an administration that’s gone further afield” from it.
“The reason I see us struggling economically is because Washington has become too assertive, too big, too demanding on the lives of the American people,” said Romney, 64, calling the healthcare measure the worst example of that.
Romney has drawn criticism from fiscal conservatives for having signed a healthcare law in Massachusetts that, like the national law, mandates insurance coverage.
Questioned about that overlap by DeMint, Romney said the healthcare issue would be “one of my best assets” in drawing contrasts with Obama, whose plan he said was “unconstitutional” as well as “bad law.” He has defended the Massachusetts measure as appropriate for his state, and not a template for the rest of the nation.
Participating in the forum with Bachmann and Romney were Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and businessman Herman Cain. Each spoke separately and fielded questions from a three-member panel, including DeMint and King.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 61, who polls show has surged to frontrunner status among Republicans following his entrance into the race last month, pulled out of the event hours before it began, saying he needed to return home to deal with wildfires that are ravaging the drought-stricken state.
“He needed to be back in Texas,” DeMint said before the forum’s start, announcing Perry’s absence. “They’ve got a bad situation that’s getting worse.”
Absent from the stage was Sarah Palin, who reinvigorated speculation about her presidential ambitions with appearances in Iowa on Sept. 3 -- where she declared there’s “room for more” Republican presidential contenders -- and New Hampshire yesterday.
Palin was invited to the forum while two other declared candidates, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, weren’t because they haven’t drawn enough support in public polls, according to the event’s organizers.
The forum kicked off a month featuring three candidate debates in the Republican race. The first takes place tomorrow at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
The gathering offered its participants the chance to hone their messages to tea party-aligned voters, whose influence helped create the wave that gave Republicans control of the House in last year’s elections and could sway the presidential race.
Leading conservatives attended at DeMint’s invitation. One of the guests, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, said following the forum that Romney has “got to square up a lot of inconsistencies” in his record. “That’s his greatest weakness,” Cuccinelli said.
Romney, who earlier planned to skip the event, rearranged his Labor Day weekend schedule to appear. In a sign of the skepticism he faces from some conservatives who suspect he doesn’t share their views, the tea party-affiliated group FreedomWorks objected to his appearance Monday before the forum at a rally in Concord, N.H., that the Tea Party Express sponsored.
Romney led the Republican field in polls before Perry entered the race.
Rounding out the questioners at the Palmetto forum was Robert George, a Princeton University professor and co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage, a group opposing allowing gays to wed.
Questioned by George, all the candidates except Romney said that, as president, they would push legislation to end abortion rights in the United States, using the 14th Amendment equal-protection guarantee to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that established those rights.
Romney said he would support overturning the Roe decision and sending the question of abortion rights to the states. “I’m not looking to create a constitutional crisis,” Romney said.
Gingrich said abortion is just one area “where the courts have now dramatically usurped their power,” adding that Congress should limit the judiciary’s right to review certain matters.
Bachmann, who helped start a charter school in Minnesota before winning her House seat in 2006, pinpointed education as an area where the federal government has overreached. “The Constitution does not specifically enumerate, nor does it give to the federal government, the role and duty to superintend over education,” she said. “That historically has been held by the parents and by local communities and by state government.”
She also said she would “without a doubt” choose a vice presidential running mate who shared her opposition to abortion rights and belief in traditional marriage. Cain, Gingrich and Paul also flatly vowed to do so, while Romney said, “I certainly imagine so.”
Shortly after the forum ended, Bachmann campaign manager Ed Rollins said he was stepping down from the post. Rollins, 68, told CNN that while he “hasn’t got the energy” for the grind of running a presidential campaign, he would continue to serve Bachmann as an adviser.
Paul said at the forum that virtually all of government should be sharply restricted. “Everything should be up for grabs, and it should be grossly reduced,” he said, blaming both political parties for expanding government “endlessly” for decades.
Paul and Cain said the government should return to a gold standard or some other means of bolstering the dollar’s value.
“We have got to get back to sound money — our dollar is suffering,” Cain said. “We’ve got to get back to a dollar is a dollar is a dollar.”
The forum was a chance for DeMint, 60, to help frame the narrative of the 2012 elections. As part of his efforts to set his party’s political agenda, his political action committee — the Senate Conservatives Fund — helped elect five Republicans to the chamber in 2010 who he billed as “true conservatives.” The fund had raised $2.3 million as of July 31, according to the Federal Election Commission.
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