A partial cast of Republican presidential candidates appears at a "tea… (Stephen Morton, Getty Images )
Reporting from Columbia, S.C. — In a Labor Day warm-up for this week's presidential debate, a partial cast of Republican contenders argued Monday for turning back the clock on legislation passed at the federal level, starting with President Obama's healthcare law and going back nearly a century.
Repeal of the federal income tax, stripping the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over abortion and sharply cutting the powers of the Federal Reserve Bank were among the positions that found favor at a "tea party"-themed forum in the first southern primary state.
Mitt Romney accused the Obama administration of departing more radically from the principles of the Constitution than any in history, and he singled out "Obamacare" — the law modeled in part on Romney's Massachusetts state healthcare plan — as an example of a "massive intrusion" into the lives of ordinary Americans.
Romney, a supporter of abortion rights and gay rights as governor of Massachusetts, also said that, if nominated, he would choose a running mate who opposed abortion rights and favored "traditional marriage" between a man and a woman.
The nationally televised event was to have been Texas Gov. Rick Perry's debut with his Republican rivals. Instead, he broke off campaigning in South Carolina and returned to Texas, where firefighters are battling wildfires.
In New Hampshire, a throng of nearly 1,000 came to hear Sarah Palin give a rousing pep talk to a boisterous Tea Party Express rally. The former Alaska governor, who didn't tip her hand on a possible 2012 run, largely repeated remarks she delivered Saturday in Iowa.
But in one departure, she seemed to single out Romney, who has all but ignored the tea party until this week.
"We're seeing more and more folks realize the strength of this grass-roots movement," Palin said. "And they're wanting to be involved. I say, right on! Better late than never — for some of these candidates, especially."
Romney, who has been knocked from the lead in the polls by Perry, began reaching out recently to tea party supporters in early-voting states. He changed his schedule last week to appear at the South Carolina event, which he had planned to skip.
Romney promised to "return America to those principles that made us a great nation," including letting states control matters such as healthcare.
The candidates were questioned separately by a panel that included Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a tea party leader who organized the Palmetto Freedom Forum as a showcase for the GOP contenders. They gave relatively little attention to jobs — other than calling for sharp reductions in federal regulations and taxes — instead responding mainly to questions about social policy, immigration and the relevance of the nation's founding principles to modern politics.
Princeton professor Robert P. George asked the candidates whether, as president, they would urge Congress to legislate an end to abortion, using the power of the 14th Amendment to overturn the Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade.
All the contenders, save Romney, said they would. Romney said he would prefer to let the states decide the issue, rather than provoke "a constitutional crisis."
Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota representative in a fight with Perry for backing from the party's most conservative voters, accused Obama of "acting outside of the bounds of the Constitution," and pointed to the individual insurance mandate in the healthcare law. She also repeated an earlier assertion that Romney's state healthcare mandate was unconstitutional. (After the forum, Bachmann announced a staff shake-up; campaign manager Ed Rollins was moved to senior advisor, and a lower-level aide was named interim campaign manager.)
Bachmann's gibe was the closest that any of the candidates came to criticizing a rival in an event that DeMint had said was not designed as "a 'gotcha' forum."
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whose libertarian views have strongly influenced the tea party movement, drew cheers with his demand to bring home all U.S. troops stationed abroad.
"All great nations fall because they spread themselves too widely around the world, and we've done it as well," he said.
Georgia businessman Herman Cain seconded a call by Paul for a return to the gold standard and proposed rewriting a 1913 law to do away with the Federal Reserve Bank's mission to maximize employment. Cain joined Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Paul in calling for a sharp reduction in the federal income tax on corporations.
Gingrich poked fun at his fall from the top ranks of the Republican field by comparing himself to the University of South Carolina football team, saying that he identifies "with teams that fumble early in the game and still come back."