Five of the top six Republicans running for president spent Labor Day taking a grilling from the conservative wing of their party at a forum in Columbia, S.C.
Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina — who is a powerful voice in the early voting state and a Tea Party favorite — organized the forum, which started on a bit of a deflated note with news that Texas Gov. Rick Perry backed out at the last minute to deal with raging wildfires in his state.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was the candidate who seemed to squirm the most under the panel's scrutiny. He's pitched his campaign to the independent voters he'll need in a general election, and he has struggled to gain Tea Party support.
DeMint, one of three questioners at the forum, poked Romney on one of his thorniest issues. "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?" DeMint asked Romney.
With less than a minute to respond, Romney insisted his law was much more limited than the federal statute, which he says is "simply unconstitutional."
"It's bad law," Romney said. "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."
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota went further, saying the federal healthcare law should be repealed.
"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," she said.
Bachmann also said she thinks it's unconstitutional for states to require people to have health care.
Each of the candidates got 20 minutes alone on stage to respond to questions from DeMint, Rep. Steve King of Iowa 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.
"Will you choose as your running mate for vice president someone who shares your pro life and pro marriage convictions?" George asked businessman Herman Cain.
"Absolutely," Cain answered.
"Good. Thank you," George replied.
"Absolutely," Cain reiterated.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas also got a chance to argue their conservative credentials on stage.
Asked what they would do to create jobs, all of the candidates touched on what they said was a need to reduce taxes, limit regulation and shrink the role of the federal government.
Paul got big applause from the audience when he answered a question about the federal programs he would eliminate.
"That's a difficult question because that's a long list," Paul said. "I'd rather give you a list of things we should keep."
Paul said Americans need a system of sound money, property rights, contracts, a judicial system and a defense department, and "not a heck of a lot else."
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. He said states need to make that decision.
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.