COLUMBIA, S.C. — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who as Massachusetts governor ushered in a state health care system that required residents to have insurance coverage, said his first task if elected would be to let states opt out of President Barack Obama's health care reform plan.
"That'll be one of my best assets if I get to debate President Obama," Romney said of his stance on health care during a GOP presidential forum Monday in Columbia. He said his plan impacted only 8 percent of people in his home state who lacked coverage, not all Americans as Obama's plan eventually would do.
"(Obama health care reform) has got to be stopped," he added, "and I know it better than most."
Vying to be the Tea Party favorite in a state increasingly known for its limited government/less taxes fervor, five leading GOP presidential contenders took to the stage, fielding questions from popular conservative U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and the American Principles Project, a nonprofit encouraging a political return to constitutional principles.
Of the five candidates at the forum — Romney, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Godfather's Pizza chief executive Herman Cain — Romney received the highest approval ratings in the most recent poll of likely GOP primary voters in South Carolina.
But the top vote-getter in that same poll, Texas Gov. Rick Perry — who is leading in South Carolina by 20 percentage points — withdrew plans to attend Monday's forum to return to Texas to deal with wildfires there, after attending an event earlier in the day in Myrtle Beach.
Still, the state's First-in-the-South primary is months away, in February, with big names like DeMint yet to endorse.
U.S. Rep. Tim Scott of Charleston said Monday he was pleased to see Romney engaging with the state's voters. With few visits to the state thus far, many speculate Romney, who initially declined an invitation to the event, will not aggressively campaign in South Carolina, where he finished fourth in the 2008 primary. DeMint endorsed Romney in 2008.
"A., he showed up which is really good; and B., he did really well," Scott said of Romney's performance Monday.
In conversations full of quotes from Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, the five candidates worked to distinguish themselves from the pack and prove their salt as strict adherers to the U.S. Constitution and the ideology of the nation's founding fathers.
During the first 22-minute grilling, Bachmann took a subtle stab at Romney, saying states cannot constitutionally enact health care reform. She also continued her opposition to labor unions.
"They have denied the people of South Carolina literally thousands of high-paying jobs," Bachmann said of the National Labor Relations Board fighting a decision by Boeing to move one of its airplane production lines to a North Charleston site from a unionized Washington state site.
Bachmann added she has spoken with Gov. Nikki Haley, who has said companies in Japan, Canada and Germany are interested in relocating to South Carolina "but they're wondering what the ruling of the NLRB would be," Bachmann said. "As president of the United States, I would not appoint anyone to the NLRB who does not support the right to work (states.)"
Meanwhile, Georgia businessman Cain said that national security would be his top priority, and that he would oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants in all forms.
When it comes to legal immigrants, Cain said caps may be appropriate in certain communities.
"In some communities there might be a number where we don't want to overwhelm the system," he said.
Cain also said he would tackle the national debt with an across-the-board cut on all federal spending, the elimination of inefficient and duplicative programs, and a restructuring of expensive programs such as Social Security, possibly with individual retirement accounts.
Several in the audience including Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, and Tea Party members said they were impressed by Gingrich, who pushed for the repeal of the Dodd-Frank, which put new regulations on banks. Gingrich also is pushing no tax increases in 2013, zero capital gains, abolishing the death tax permanently and taking the corporate tax rate to 12.5 percent.
"He really knows the issues," said Laurie Papotto of Pelzer, who attended Monday's event. "I wish he could overcome the other things (in his personal life) to stand a chance."
Meanwhile Paul, of Texas, pushed for the elimination of most of the federal government, leaving a leaner system to oversee sound money, property rights, the judicial system, defense of the country "but not a heck of a lot else," Paul said.
"Everything (else) should be up for grabs," Paul said.
Paul also said he would also relieve all American troops from international duty no matter what country they're stationed.
"I'd bring them all home," Paul said. "Besides, we're bankrupt."