DeMint Forum A Success With Voters, Candidates
But Perry's absence still dominated conversation
The biggest winner in the Palmetto Freedom Forum in Columbia on Monday may have been the South Carolina electorate.
While the media focused on which presidential candidate said what and how it might affect the endorsement game, the organizers of the event and the candidates themselves praised a format that allowed the Republicans vying for the nomination to speak at length in response to questions from panelists.
Candidates who were polling above 5 percent in the Real Clear Politics poll as of Aug. 22 were invited. Rick Perry, the Texas governor and frontrunner had to remove himself from the event earlier in the day to assess the damages brushfires have done to his state. The other candidates in attendance were Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney.
The two-hour long session was led by a panel of Sen. Jim DeMint, Congressman Steve King of Iowa and Robert George, Princeton professor and founder of the American Principles Project.
Each candidate made a three-minute opening statement about their interpretation of the constitution and then had approximately 20 minutes to answer questions from the panel. In general, George focused on social issues while DeMint and King focused on policy.
Any fear that the questions might be less than challenging since they were coming from fellow Republicans evaporated early when DeMint asked Bachmann to be specific about which federal programs she would cut if she were president.
Bachmann, as she has been throughout the campaign, was poised in her responses. First and foremost, she put the Department of Education on the chopping block.
Next on the stage was businessman Herman Cain who appeared to make an effort to demonstrate his expertise on foreign policy, an area where he had stumbled earlier in the campaign. Cain said he went cut the Federal budget by 10 percent and then a “deep dive” on other spending.
The third candidate to be questioned was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Three months ago, Gingrich’s campaign appeared to be on the verge of collapse, but the Freedom Forum seemed tailor-made to help him mount a comeback. Gingrich had complete command of the issues and rattled off numerous solutions to problems that have plagued recent administrations. The question for Gingrich will be if his knowledge is enough to overcome problems voters have with his personal ethics.
Congressman Ron Paul’s time on the stage was marked by repeated attacks of his favorite target — the Federal Reserve. Much as King did to Bachmann, DeMint asked Paul which federal programs he would eliminate. Paul said he would look at them all and reiterated his argument to return all soldiers home immediately.
The final candidate on stage was the previous frontrunner and last-minute entrant Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts. The last question to him may have been the highlight of the session, as DeMint asked Romney what was different about the health care plan he passed as governor to that of the one passed by President Barack Obama. Romney pointed to the impacts on Medicare and taxes that Obama’s plan could have, as well as the fact that it includes a mandate.
With the absence of Perry looming large, the candidates refrained from attacking each other. Instead they invoked Jefferson, Lincoln and Reagan, while not passing on any opportunity to criticize Democrats.
It’s not likely the Freedom Forum did much to change polling numbers. But, with a debate scheduled on Wednesday, the rest of the field will have their chance to take on Perry.
After the event, DeMint pronounced it a substantive success while adding that he expects the frontrunner to change a “couple of times” before the primary.