Republican candidates for president gathered here Monday afternoon for an unusual forum that explored their views of the U.S. Constitution and how they believe the government has strayed from it.

The forum, hosted by a tea party favorite, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), reflected how much the tea party movement — which helped fuel last year’s historic Republican gains in Congress with a refocus on the nation’s limited-government origins — continues to exert itself in the run-up to next year’s presidential election.

Candidates took the stage at the Palmetto Freedom Forum one at a time, for about 20 minutes each, taking questions on topics that ranged from the “usurpatory” tendencies of the Supreme Court to the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy.

There were few opportunities for the candidates to issue their usual stream of campaign sound bites. Instead, the questions demanded from the candidates not only a description of how the government has failed to abide by the Constitution — but how to fix it.

Limited government

“This is one of the most important subjects to me,” DeMint said. “Does our next president really understand what limited government means?”

All of the candidates tried to answer that question with a resounding “Yes.”

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney called for the repeal of a raft of federal legislation that he believes overstepped the government’s authority, from the health-care overhaul to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), when asked what federal programs he would eliminate, retorted: “I’d rather give you a list of the things we should keep” because the list would be shorter. And Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), in an implicit dig at Romney, declared that even a state-level health-care law containing an individual insurance mandate would lie afoul of the Constitution.

“My guiding principle will be that government works best when it acts within the limitations of the Constitution, but it fails when it denies that principle and makes decisions based on political expediency,” Bachmann said.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Georgia businessman Herman Cain also participated in the forum, which was conducted before a small invited audience in downtown Columbia and was broadcast nationally on CNN. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was scheduled to participate but flew home earlier in the day to attend to his state’s still-raging wildfires. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania were not invited because of their low standing in polls.

Mostly, the candidates hewed closely to the ideology of the tea party and conservatives generally, with unanimous support for eliminating government spending, reducing the national debt and upholding the Defense of Marriage Act. But at turns candidates seized moments to distinguish their views from the rest of the field. Paul, for instance, repeated his views that the United States must withdraw military forces from around the world and return to the gold standard.

And even as he sought to prove his bona fides with tea party supporters, Romney seized a few moments to tack to the middle, making the point that the GOP should not try to be the party against all regulations — and rejecting a suggestion that the president should get around the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide by simply passing a new law giving authority to the states.

“That would create, obviously, a constitutional crisis,” Romney said. “That’s not something I would precipitate.”

The participants, organizers and audience members at the Palmetto Freedom Forum all praised the format as a new way for conservatives to learn about candidates without relying on events staged by national media outlets — or on the spin of opposing candidates.

“I learned a lot from these candidates today,” said DeMint, who was joined by two other panelists, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Princeton University legal scholar Robert George.

“If you give us time we can find out what these candidates stand for,” he said. “What we think of these candidates has been defined for us by their opponents or the media before we ever get a chance to meet them. Forums like this give us a chance to see what they really believe and how they plan to translate their beliefs into policy.”

Still, with five nationally televised debates scheduled in the coming six weeks, it remains to be seen how deep the forum’s influence will be — and whether similar efforts will be scheduled elsewhere.