ROBERT SIEGEL, host: The Republicans who would like to unseat President Obama used this Labor Day to talk conservative fundamentals in South Carolina. Tea Party favorite Senator Jim DeMint hosted five of the GOP candidates for president at a forum in Columbia, but the new frontrunner in the crowded Republican field didn't make the event. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been following the forum today, and she joins us now. Debbie, this could have been our first chance to see the two top candidates in the polls side by side. Mitt Romney was there. But it turned out that Texas Governor Rick Perry didn't make it. What happened?
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Right. Right. Well, Governor Perry decided this morning that he needed to be back in Texas. There is a wildfire crisis there, so he called Senator Jim DeMint and said I'm sorry. I won't make it. I understand we will have more coverage in the show tonight about those wildfires. So, you know, a lot of political observers had really hoped they would get to see the two frontrunners mix it up a little bit. That was not to be. Romney had changed his schedule at the last minute to participate in today's event.
If you remember back at the Iowa debate, Romney was sort of able to step back and let other candidates beat up on one another because Perry was not officially in the race. So there was some hope that there would be that, you know, Labor Day, the official start of the campaign season, and you'd get to see a little more mixing it up than you did today.
SIEGEL: And we didn't. So let's hear about the candidates who were there. Michele Bachmann has been popular with the Tea Party. What was her focus?
ELLIOTT: You know, like all of the candidates who showed up today, they all sort of came out and laid out a strong defense of the U.S. Constitution. And we should note that this really wasn't a debate at all. This was a forum. Senator DeMint set it up so each of the candidates came out one by one and made their case and answered questions from the panelists. So there was no back and forth at all. Bachmann took aim at President Obama pretty quickly. One of the things she promised to do, again, is to repeal the health care law that requires everybody to have insurance. She called it a foundation for socialized medicine.
Representative MICHELE BACHMANN: When the federal government can tell any American that they can bought - that they must as a condition of citizenship purchase a product or service whether it's against their will, effectively the United States government will be dictating that price, and they will become a dictator over our lives. This is an issue that must be solved in 2012.
ELLIOTT: Now, she also made the case that even states can't impose individual mandates, but then appeared to be somewhat stumped when asked to cite the constitutional grounds for that position.
SIEGEL: And what did Mitt Romney have to say in South Carolina today?
ELLIOTT: You know, he also promised he would, you know, first and foremost, do something about the health care law. He said he would grant, actually, waivers to every state so that they wouldn't have to require health insurance for all of their citizens. He also spent a lot of time talking about economic policy, saying that jobs would come if you freed up business from too much government regulation. He also talked a little bit about his inspiration. He answered a question about how he would deal with the tough decisions that he'd have to make in the White House, and he said he would turn to his faith.
MITT ROMNEY: I go on my knees. I'm a person of faith, and I look for inspiration.
ELLIOTT: I think that could be an important message for the crowd here. This is the first in the South primary that happens in South Carolina. And religious voters are a very big part of the bloc there.
SIEGEL: And Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina is very popular in the state with Tea Party supporters. Is he throwing his weight behind any of these candidates?
ELLIOTT: Not yet. He says he can support any of them, but clearly today, he was hoping that he could get them talking about the kinds of issues that he thinks are important. You know, the themes today included pro-life, anti-gay marriage, limited government, and, of course, everyone quoted Ronald Reagan. The other two candidates that were there that we haven't talked about - or three candidates - were Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Georgia businessman Herman Cain.
SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Debbie.
ELLIOTT: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.