COLUMBIA -- The top five Republican contenders for their party's nomination battled President Barack Obama rather than one another at today's forum designed to get beyond sound bites to help South Carolinians decide who should win their vote.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who polls behind the so-called top tier candidates, stood out among the pack, but more than anything the activists who attended said the Palmetto Freedom Forum fleshed out the field.
The candidates each took the stage for about 25 minutes and answered questions from a conservative panel, rather than facing off against one another in a traditional debate format. The sold-out event was offered by the American Principles Project.
About 500 GOP activists attended.
In addition to Gingrich, the attendees were Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry canceled earlier Monday to travel back to his state to oversee the emergency response to wildfires. He attended a town hall event with South Carolina's 1st District Congressman Tim Scott in Myrtle Beach.
U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina - one of the event organizers - said the country and maybe the world is counting on the Palmetto State to pick a Republican nominee who can win the election against Obama and one that can stand up for the party's values. The state has correctly picked the party's nominee in every contest since 1980.
DeMint said all the candidates displayed a lot of strength, but he said his endorsement won't come until later.
"I don't think this race is over yet," DeMint said.
It took him less than 60 seconds at the forum's opening to take the first swing at Obama: "He's made a bad situation much, much worse."
-Bachmann used her time on stage to focus on the Constitution, but she didn't do much to electrify the crowd. Coming off a win in last month's Iowa straw poll she perhaps had the most to lose.
-Cain showed his business chops by ticking off a list of specifics fixes to the economy, including his "9-9-9" plan. It calls for a 9 percent corporate income tax rate, a 9 percent personal income rate and 9 percent sales tax rate.
-Gingrich looked the most at ease by telling jokes and showing off his oratorical skills. But it is unclear whether his past personal issues will get in the way and whether he has the desire to stick with the long, hard road to the White House.
-Paul turned out his normal energized fan base and emphasized the importance of liberty in America. He slung some of his usual zingers, such as, "When people tell me half the people don't pay taxes, I say, 'Well, we're half way there."
-Romney got props from both DeMint and Scott for adding the forum to his agenda after not originally being scheduled to attend. He displayed his policy savvy by describing what went wrong in the mortgage meltdown and the effects of Washington regulations on businesses, small, medium-sized and large.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani were also invited but did not attend. Invitations were based on how high the candidates polled.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania did not make the cut. Still other lesser known candidates, such as former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, are continuing their swings through the early primary states this week, including South Carolina.
The panelists in addition to DeMint were U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Robert George, founder of American Principles Project and McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.
Read more later at postandcourier.com and also in tomorrow's newspaper.