STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It is only in the most technical sense that we can say that the budget debate does not take place in an election year. The campaign for the White House has been under way for some time.
DAVID GREENE, host:
And yesterday, five Republican candidates took questions at a forum in South Carolina. Senator Jim DeMint organized the meeting.
INSKEEP: He's one of the strongest voices of his party's most conservative wing.
Julie Rose filed this report from member station WFAE.
JULIE ROSE: The event started on a bit of a deflated note with news that the frontrunner in the Republican race, Texas Governor Rick Perry, backed out at the last minute to deal with raging wildfires in his state.
That left former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as the leading candidate on stage, and the one who seemed to squirm the most under the panel's scrutiny. He's pitched his campaign for independent voters he'll need in a general election, and has struggled to gain Tea Party support.
Here's Senator Jim DeMint poking Romney on one of his thorniest issues.
Senator JIM DEMINT (Republican, South Carolina): You know, if you're our nominee, the president's going to say you implemented ObamaCare in Massachusetts. How would you describe what Massachusetts did?
ROSE: With less than a minute to respond, Romney insisted his law was much more limited than the federal one, which he says is...
Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican Presidential Candidate): Simply unconstitutional. It's bad law. It's bad medicine. And on day one of my administration I'll direct the secretary of Health and Human Services to grant a waiver from Obamacare to all 50 states. It has got to be stopped and I know it better than most. Thank you...
(Soundbite of applause)
ROSE: Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann went even further, saying the federal health care law should be repealed right now.
Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota; Presidential Candidate): Because I believe that Obamacare will so metastasize itself into every part of American life that we will never get rid of it again, and this is the foundation for socialized medicine, make no mistake about it. It will change the face of this nation forever.
ROSE: Bachmann also said she thinks it's unconstitutional for states to require people have health care. That seemed to surprise the three panelists for whom states rights is paramount.
Each of the candidates got 20 minutes alone on stage to respond to questions from Senator DeMint, Iowa Congressman Steve King, and conservative scholar Robert George of the American Principles Project. The forum was designed to vet the conservative credentials of the candidates with questions leaning toward litmus test issues such as abortion and gay marriage. The panelists sounded occasionally like teachers trying to coax the right answer out of a student.
Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (American Principles Project): Will you choose as your running mate for vice president someone who shares your pro-life and your and pro-marriage convictions?
Mr. HERMAN CAIN (Republican Presidential Candidate): Absolutely.
Mr. GEORGE: Good. Thank you.
Mr. CAIN: Absolutely.
ROSE: That was businessman Herman Cain being questioned by Robert George. Former Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich and Texas Congressman Ron Paul also got a chance to argue their conservative cred onstage. Asked what they would do to create jobs, all of the candidates touched on the need to lower taxes, limit regulation, and shrink the role of the federal government. Congressman Paul got big applause from the audience on that last point. What federal programs would he eliminate?
Representative RON PAUL: (Republican, Texas; Presidential Candidate): Well, that's a difficult question because that's a long list. I'd rather give you the list of the things we should keep.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROSE: We need a system of sound money, property rights, contracts, a judicial system, and a defense department, said Paul.
Rep. PAUL: But not a heck of a lot else.
ROSE: Paul also differed from the other candidates on the topic of abortion. He would not concede the need for congressional action or a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. States need to make that decision, said Paul. Romney also differed from the conservative panelists on that issue, saying he would focus on appointing justices to the Supreme Court who would respect the Constitution and give states the power to govern abortion.
Since each candidate was alone onstage - and spent the rest of the forum out of earshot - there was none of the fireworks and political sniping that have begun to mark the crowded Republican race. They'll have a chance for that when they meet in a traditional debate on Wednesday night at the Reagan Library.
For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Columbia.
INSKEEP: Some other election news: Michele Bachmann has run a stronger campaign than many anticipated and now the architect of that campaign is stepping down.
GREENE: Ed Rollins, a veteran of many Republican campaigns, is 68 and he says he doesn't have the energy to work the long hours.
INSKEEP: He'll move to a smaller advisory capacity instead. Mr. Rollins also told CNN that he thinks the race for the nomination has become a contest between two other contenders: Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.