ABC News’ Michael Falcone, Emily Friedman, Gregory Simmons and Arlette Saenz report:
COLUMBIA, S.C. — On a day usually marked by end-of-summer barbecues, five presidential candidates came here on Labor Day for a grilling of a different kind.
Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain spent the afternoon in front of a panel of three conservative inquisitors, including Tea Party icon, Sen. Jim DeMint. They peppered each candidate with a detailed series of questions on everything from gay marriage to their view of the 14 Amendment to whether the United States was still the “shining city on a hill” that Ronald Reagan famously envisioned.
And when they weren’t explaining the depth of their commitment to conservative principles, each used Monday’s Palmetto Freedom Forum to take a few swipes at President Obama.
When asked what he would do differently in the area of foreign policy, Romney replied, “A lot. First, I’d have one.”
Gingrich dismissed the jobs speech President Obama plans to deliver this week, predicting that it would be a “collection of minor ideas surrounded by big rhetoric.”
Michele Bachmann said that Obama has failed in his responsibility “to act under the Constitution and not place oneself over the Constitution.”
The candidates did not engage with each other face-to-face as they will two days from now at a debate in California and notably, the current Republican front-runner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was a no-show at the forum. Though Perry took part in another campaign event across the state Monday morning he cancelled on event organizers at the last-minute in order to return to Texas to deal with the wildfires there.
At a news conference in Texas late Monday afternoon in Texas, Perry said he was “not paying any attention to politics right now.”
“There’s plenty of time to take care of that,” he added. “People’s lives are in danger– that’s substantially more important.”
DeMint was joined on the panel of questioners by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Robert George, the founder of the American Principles Project, the group that hosted the forum. The candidates who did show up fielded many of the same questions from the panelists such as whether they would work to overturn Roe v. Wade if elected.
Romney, for one, said he would. And though he has mostly stayed mum about faith during his campaign, on Monday he offered a rare glimpse into his personal relationship with God and how it relates to his ability to cope with difficult decisions.
“I go on my knees,” he said. “I’m a person of faith, and I look for inspiration.”
Romney, however, did not serve up as much conservative red meat as Gingrich, who railed against activist judges, arguing that he would eliminate the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I believe the legislative and executive branches have an obligation to defend the constitution against judges who are tyrannical and who seek to impose un-American values on the people of the United States,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich, whose campaign has been floundering in recent months, said he remained optimistic about his chances.
“I identify with teams that fumble early in the game but still come back,” he said.
He also told reporters after the forum that he’s “very slowly” chipping away at the million-dollar debt his campaign accrued in the opening months of his presidential bid and predicted August would be his best showing in fundraising so far. “I’m raising money as quickly as I can,” Gingrich said.
Michele Bachmann assailed the policies of the Obama administration, arguing that President Obama has made the country less competitive.
“We believe in profit, we actually think that profit is a good thing and that we should encourage that in this country,” Bachmann said.
Not on stage tonight were candidates Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman, who were left off the roster because they did not meet the polling threshold — an average of five percent in national polls — set by organizers of the event.
After the forum, Senator DeMint reflected on the two-hour-long session, saying he was not sure if it brought him any closer to a decision on who to endorse. DeMint, who backed Romney in 2008, said he was “taking a completely fresh look” at the entire field this year.
“I’m not going to disqualify a candidate on one issue at this point,” he said.