For most of the GOP presidential field, Labor Day this year will be a grilling day. But instead of flipping some burgers in the backyard, the candidates will face grilling of another sort: tough, serious questions at the Palmetto Freedom Forum in South Carolina.
The event, the product of a partnership between conservative kingmakers Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) and Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa), is designed to prod the candidates into going beyond their standard sound-bite responses.
“One question that I’m confident will be asked,” King says, “is, What are our first principles and how do you apply them? And, if you’re elected president, what would you change to better reflect the first principles that made America great?”
“I’m not hearing the candidates articulate their real vision for America,” King adds. “I want to ask them, If you’re president and able to implement your policies, what’s America going to look like in five, ten, or twenty years? I don’t want the candidates to just say that we need to get unemployment down and economic growth up. I want to know what they think the character and culture of America should look like in a generation.”
Joining King to question the candidates will be DeMint and Princeton University professor Robert George, a noted social conservative and founder of the event’s sponsoring organization, the American Principles Project. The schedule gives the panel 22 minutes to quiz each candidate. That’s the same length of time as a sitcom episode, but King hopes that the combination of pointed questions and answer times that can be extended beyond the one or two minutes given in standard presidential debates will lead to responses that are more thoughtful soliloquy than one-liner. “If they are just re-running something we’ve heard before, then I think the follow-up question might come in a little more quickly,” King remarks.
All declared GOP candidates polling at an average of 5 percent or more nationally were invited, along with Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani. Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain will all attend.
As influential conservatives from two of the first three states in the primary/caucus season, DeMint and King have been working in tandem for months now to steer the Republican conversation. In March, DeMint keynoted the Conservative Principles Conference, an event that King hosted in Des Moines, Iowa, and that featured Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain. Both DeMint and King spoke at a New Hampshire tea-party rally in April that also included speeches by Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann.
Neither King nor DeMint has endorsed yet, and King denies that they’ll continue their cooperation to the point of deliberately choosing to endorse the same candidate. “I can’t imagine an independent thinker like Jim DeMint or myself deciding that we were going to make that decision together,” he says. “If we get to the same place independently, that might be a logical thing. But it’s not something that we’re going to coordinate.”
Instead, what DeMint and King have striven to do is influence the conversation, and make sure the candidates have been publicly asked the kinds of questions that conservative voters care about.
In September and October, there will be five debates among the GOP contenders. But if DeMint, King, and George are able to pull off the kind of quizzing they envision, the most revealing answers may be given before any of those debates occur.