Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney promised Monday to support repeal of a full range of financial-regulation legislation enacted over the past few decades as he sought to woo conservative and tea party voters in South Carolina, and pledged that his vice-presidential pick would be pro-life.
Meanwhile, one of his chief opponents for the GOP's nomination, tea-party favorite Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, saw her campaign manager take a lesser role and her deputy campaign manager quit late Monday as Texas Gov. Rick Perry's entrance into the race last month continued to roil the field.
Ed Rollins, who stepped down as Mrs. Bachmann's campaign manager to become an adviser, was frank in his assessment Monday night, telling CNN that Mr. Perry's entrance into the race has drained both money and attention from Mrs. Bachmann.
He said the race right now is a two-person contest with Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney, and Mrs. Bachmann is in third - though with the chance to win Iowa's caucuses and boost her campaign early next year.
Mr. Rollins, in news first reported by Politico, cited health concerns for his decision to step down as manager and said deputy campaign manager David Polyansky had differences with Mrs. Bachmann.
Mr. Perry's entry also has prompted Mr. Romney to begin competing more aggressively for tea party voters - something he did Monday by promising a repeal of the Obama agenda and pledging fealty to traditional social values when he seeks a running mate.
"I would expect they'd all be pro-life and pro-traditional marriage," Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, said at a presidential candidates forum in South Carolina, organized by Sen. Jim DeMint and the American Principles Project and designed to delve more deeply into the fundamental principles of the presidential field.
Mr. Perry, who planned on attending the event, changed his schedule Monday afternoon and returned to Texas to oversee firefighting efforts against spreading wildfires, which means he and Mr. Romney have yet to appear on the same stage in the campaign so far.
In his absence, the other candidates found repeated areas of agreement on undoing the basic parts of President Obama's tenure, though they disagreed about how far they would go on perennial thorny questions about abortion and foreign policy.
Most of the candidates said they would support an effort to use part of the 14th Amendment to undo the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, which found a constitutional right to an abortion. Some conservative legal scholars argue that under the 14th Amendment, the federal government can define unborn children under federal law as "persons," whom the states cannot deprive of life without due process.
However, Mr. Romney warned that such a move could precipitate a "constitutional crisis" among the branches of government.
"I would live within the law within the Constitution as I understand it, without creating a constitutional crisis," he said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he welcomed "a big fight" with lawyers and activist courts, saying the framers of the Constitution intended tension among all three branches of the federal government when it came to powers under the founding document.
He also pointed approvingly to Thomas Jefferson, who as president in 1802 eliminated half of the federal judgeships.
"I am not, I want to be clear here, I am not as bold as Thomas Jefferson. I would do no more than eliminate Judge [Fred] Berry in San Antonio, and the 9th Circuit [Court of Appeals in California]. That's the most I would go for," he said. "That's not a rhetorical comment."
Rounding out the field of candidates who participated were businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Mrs. Bachmann.
Each began with an explanation of his or her first governing principles, then faced a three-member panel. Under questioning from Princeton University professor Robert George, founder of the American Principles Project, each of the candidates predicted naming a pro-life running mate.
Mr. Paul disputed Mr. George's call to use the 14th Amendment to impose a federal ban on abortion, saying the issue should be returned to the states. Mr. Romney said he would tackle abortion by appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn the Roe decision.
The Democratic National Committee said the Republican field's effort to court tea party voters meant candidates were appealing to "the most narrow, extreme and divisive wing of a Republican Party not exactly known for its moderation."
"Now, one Republican presidential candidate after another is pledging allegiance to the tea party and its extreme economic agenda - an agenda that would double down on the failed Republican policies of the last decade that nearly sank our nation into a second Great Depression," DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse said.
In his opening statement, Mr. Romney seemed to give a nod to the political evolution he has made over the years: "The older I get, the more I appreciate the extraordinary brilliance of the founders of this country," he said.
Mr. Paul, opening his own remarks, said talking about the founders and their principles is not new to him.
"I've been trying to do that for 35, 40 years," he said.
On health care, all of the candidates agreed that the president overreached, but Mrs. Bachmann went the furthest, arguing that the individual mandate in the national law is unconstitutional and that the federal Constitution should prevent states from enacting individual mandates.
"I believe it is also unconstitutional for states to mandate as a consideration of citizenship," Mrs. Bachmann said. Pressed for where the federal Constitution tied states' hands on this issue, she stumbled, telling Mr. George that she would turn to him for enlightenment.
Constitutional scholars generally think that states have such compulsory powers, though federal courts are considering whether the federal government does.
Mr. Romney has been heavily criticized by conservatives for signing legislation with an individual mandate for Massachusetts when he was the state's governor.
On Monday, the former governor said his experience with health care reform in Massachusetts makes him the best candidate to debate Mr. Obama because he can tell the president where he went wrong.
"I'd say to him, 'Why didn't you give me a call?' " Mr. Romney said.
In addition to missing Monday's appearance at the South Carolina forum because of wildfires in his home state, Mr. Perry canceled his plans to campaign in California on Tuesday.
Many of the candidates will head to California for Wednesday's debate at the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library.
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