The GOP presidential candidate forum held Saturday in Charleston, S.C., was not exactly a debate. In fact, it was sort of the opposite of a debate.
The event was moderated by Fox News host and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. All the candidates except for Ron Paul attended, but they never actually shared the stage. They were explicitly prohibited from attacking — or even mentioning — each other.
Still, going into the last week of campaigning in South Carolina, most found ways to get in a jab without naming their rivals. The vast majority of the jabs were aimed at front-runner Mitt Romney.
One member of the audience asked Jon Huntsman about his position on abortion.
"I am very clear on my pro-life philosophy," he said. "I have always been pro-life, and I always will be."
Romney supported abortion rights before he changed his position.
Rick Santorum also tried to contrast himself with the stereotype of Romney as a political opportunist who blows in the wind.
"Not everybody agrees with everything that you believe in, but what they want to know is that you believe what you believe," Santorum said, "and folks trusted me that I would stand up and in fact do what I said, and I was doing it for the right reason."
Newt Gingrich did not even bother with the oblique attacks. He went after the former Massachusetts governor by name. He continued the argument he has pursued for the past week — that Romney made a fortune at the investment company Bain Capital by closing companies and laying people off.
"Gov. Romney ran saying he created 100,000 jobs in the private sector," Gingrich said.
He was reminded not to mention the other candidates. Having been scolded by the host and booed by the audience, Gingrich joined the other candidates in going after Romney without naming him.
"To ask questions about a particular company is not the same as attacking capitalism, and I don't see how you can expect us to have a presidential campaign in which an entire sector is avoided," he said. "And I guarantee you if we Republicans avoid it, our nominee in the fall is not going to find that Obama avoids it at all."
All week long, Rick Perry joined in the Romney attacks on the campaign trail. Saturday night, however, he was the only one who did not go down that path, talking instead about his record as Texas governor.
Romney is the target because he is the man to beat in this race. He won Iowa and New Hampshire. Now South Carolina could be his rivals' last best chance to unseat him.
Polls show Romney ahead of the pack one week before the primary, but South Carolina voters still have concerns about his conservative authenticity.
One man asked Romney, "How will you convince us that you and Obama aren't just two sides of the same coin?"
Another woman said, "Can you convince me, as a true conservative, why we should vote for you, a moderate Republican, against any of the other candidates? Will you flip flop if you are elected?"
Romney tried once more to prove his conservative mettle. He said he governed Massachusetts as a conservative. In answer to another question, he said he'll fight for religious expression.
"I will not proceed down the path that I think you're seeing across this country, which is to try to secularize America," he said. "I think you ought to be able to have mangers at Christmastime and menorahs representing other faiths. Look, we are a believing people."
So far, Romney has benefited from the failure of his opponents to coalesce behind any one alternative.
As the forum was taping Saturday, conservative Christian leaders decided to throw their weight behind Santorum. Now it remains to be seen whether the anti-Romney voters will fall in line behind those leaders.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Tony Perkins is one of those leaders. He's president of the Family Research Council, and he attended the meeting where religious conservatives voted to endorse Santorum. Welcome to the program.
TONY PERKINS: Thank you. It's good to be with you.
MARTIN: Mr. Perkins, even just this past week, members of your organization were really divided over the candidates and unsure if social conservatives could rally around one candidate. What changed?
PERKINS: Well, I think there was a growing concern that we not repeat what took place in 2008. And so that was kind of the backdrop with the understanding that America is in a really precarious situation, and there is a unanimous desire and thought that we can and we most see America put back on the right path. And that includes replacing the current president of the United States with a true conservative candidate.
MARTIN: We should remind people that in 2008 what you're referring to there is the fact that social conservatives really didn't rally around Mike Huckabee. He ended up losing. Were there a lot of regrets over that decision?
PERKINS: Well, I think yes. I mean, when you look back it, Fred Thompson were still in the race and there were some others. There were people holding back, thinking, well, I'm sure that Mike Huckabee can make it or we're not sure if Fred Thompson's going to do it. And this was a desire not to repeat that course but to rather change the present course of events and hopefully combine some of that conservative vote behind a truly conservative candidate that you could then advance him onto the nomination and have a much stronger candidate be in the general election.
MARTIN: So, why Rick Santorum? What does he bring that sets him apart from other candidates, like Newt Gingrich, like Rick Perry?
PERKINS: There was a group of about 150 social conservative leaders, activists, political financiers, people who give a lot of money into the political process that met. I think what was interesting in this meeting, it was portrayed kind of going in, talking about, well, this is just going to be a bash Mitt Romney meeting. There was very little discussion about Mitt Romney. Each of the candidates, with the exception of Jon Huntsman, had a surrogate there. Now, it's not an official surrogate but someone in the evangelical community associated with those campaigns had an opportunity to speak on Friday night, and then on Saturday morning, what took place was a free-flow discussion among people who were there. And at the end of that, a balloting process took place. And that kind of three-step process to narrow down to where the majority, a super majority, decided on Rick Santorum.
MARTIN: But, again, what is it about Santorum that was able to kind of bring all these disparate parties together?
PERKINS: Well, I think, again, it was the uniqueness of the situation of which we are in. There was the group spent a considerable amount of time praying for the nation, and there was a sobering realization of where we stand as a country. Whether you look at it economically or whether it's the social and moral issues. And they're looking for someone who has a consistent record of standing and advancing these issues that would be best positioned to win the nomination and go into the general election and challenge Barack Obama. And in the end, again, a super majority agreed that that was Rick Santorum.
MARTIN: You say there was very little talk about Mitt Romney at all, but he is the frontrunner. He is pro-life, he embodies the kind of values that social conservatives hold up as important. Why not Romney?
PERKINS: Well, I think there's just a - as you see in the general voting populous - an uncomfortability(ph), an uncomfortability with him and his record and state of positions. Many do give him, or want to give him, the benefit of the doubt, but he's not spent the amount of time and energy in this election cycle that he did four years ago. We think those issues into his campaign message nor communicating with the social conservative community. So...
MARTIN: You're talking about his pro-life message and what you would perceive to be inconsistency in that?
PERKINS: Well, I mean, when you look at his record as governor is where the inconsistencies are. Now, certainly, we invite people to change their positions. But we also want to know that that is the position. And when you have a choice before you, of someone who has a very solid track record of advancing the culture of life and working to strengthen marriage and the family, as opposed to someone who has new stated policy positions as such but no record to really back it up, that's what conservative leaders were looking at. They believe that Rick Santorum has an opportunity with the possibility of succeeding in capturing the nomination, and they wanted to take a principled stand supporting a candidate who reflects everything who they talk about and work for as opposed to a simply politically pragmatic stand.
MARTIN: We should point out though that Mitt Romney won in Iowa, even by a slim margin, won decidedly in New Hampshire - two critical contests. Is this endorsement of Rick Santorum too little too late?
PERKINS: I don't think so. When you look at the fact that Mitt Romney only has 10 delegates at present. He's got a long way to go to secure the nomination. So, I think South Carolina is going to be very telling as to what the future holds. And I think that's why the timing of this is such coming out before South Carolina's vote that it could be right at the right time.
MARTIN: Tony Perkins is the president of the Family Research Council. Mr. Perkins, thanks so much for talking with us.
PERKINS: Thank you. Glad to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.