COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann diverged on Monday over whether they would push the nation to the verge of a constitutional crisis over the issue of abortion rights.
During a Republican presidential primary forum designed to test the candidates' conservative bona fides, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said that if he were elected president, he wouldn't enter a showdown with the Supreme Court -- which ruled in 1973 that abortion is allowed under the constitution -- by passing a bill through Congress to make abortion illegal. Bachmann, a Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, said she would.
"If the Supreme Court, by a plurality of the justices, may impose their own personal morality on the rest of the nation, then we are quite literally being ruled by those individuals as opposed to giving our consent to the people's representatives," Bachmann said.
Pressed whether she would be prepared for "a confrontation" with the court, Bachmann said: "Most assuredly."
In addition to Bachmann and Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex), and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain took part in Monday's Palmetto Freedom Forum. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the current frontrunner in most national polls, was scheduled to take part, but he cancelled Monday to fly back to his state to oversee the response to wildfires in the central portion of the state.
The panelist pressing the abortion question was Robert George, a Princeton professor and constitutional scholar who also chairs the National Organization for Marriage. Tea Party favorites Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) asked questions alongside George.
George pressed each of the five candidates who took part in the forum over whether they would utilize Section 5 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to contravene the Supreme Court on the issue of abortion and put the judiciary in its proper place as one of the three branches of government. The 14th amendment insists that no state "shall deprive any person of life ... without due process"; section five adds -- critically, in the eyes of anti-abortion scholars -- that "Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article."
George called the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision "usurpative," and compared it to the court's "Dred Scott" decision, which ruled that black slaves in the U.S. were not protected by the Constitution and could not be citizens, that the Congress could not prohibit slavery in U.S. territories, and that slaves could not be taken away from their owners without due process for the owner.
George said the Court, in that 1857 decision, "usurped the authority of the elected representatives of the people, the Congress and the president, and purported to bind their hands indefinitely and decisively."
Gingrich agreed enthusiastically with George that the Supreme Court should be confronted and constrained by the legislative branch.
"Congress should begin a systematic process, one part of which is to eliminate the right of the courts to review certain things," Gingrich said. "I respect the independence of the judiciary in judging individual cases, unless the person doing the judging proves to be so extraordinarily out of the context of American life and American law that they shouldn't be there."
But Romney's answer was more pragmatic.
"I'm not looking to create a constitutional crisis and have the Supreme Court say it's unconstitutional and then say, well then you enforce it," Romney said.
Romney said that such a philosophy could empower Democrats to run roughshod over a Supreme Court decision they did not like.
"So I would live within the law, within the constitution as I understand it, without creating a constitutional crisis. But I do believe Roe v. Wade should be reversed to allow states to make that decision," Romney said.
The response was one of several more moderate notes that Romney struck. He said that the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation was misguided and should be repealed, but went out of his way to note that there were portions of the bill's intent -- such as regulating the mortgage industry and scrutinizing banking capital requirements -- that were worthwhile. A few moments later, Romney also said government regulation was a good thing if done correctly.
"It's not that we don't want any regulation. We don't want to tell the world that Republicans are against all regulation. No, regulation is necessary to make a free market work. But it has to be updated and modern," Romney said
He then doubled down on the phrase "corporations are people," which attracted ridicule and criticism from Democrats after he first made it last month in Iowa.
"Too many people think that business is bad. You know what? Corporations are made up of people and employees, shareholders, customers. They're people. We want people to succeed," Romney said.
Romney has been seen as moving to the right of late, in response to Perry's stratospheric entry into the race. Romney attended a Tea Party rally in New Hampshire on Sunday and committed late last week to come to South Carolina after being non-committal about the forum in August.
Bachmann, too, finds herself trying to catch Perry, only weeks after she was on pace to be Romney's top rival in the race and the Tea Party favorite.
And despite his physical absence, Perry still managed to make a splash at the event. Minutes after the forum ended, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who is popular among Tea Party voters, announced he was endorsing Perry and would be advising him on creating a plan to speed up the nation's anemic job growth.
Mulvaney told The Huffington Post that he grew "tired" of George's questions to the candidates on confronting the Supreme Court over abortion, but noted that it did provide contrasts between some of the candidates.
Bachmann, for her part, spoke of the Constitution almost as if it were a divinely inspired document, at one point calling it "sacred."
She also said it is "inherent" in the Constitution that states are not allowed to mandate their citizens to buy "a product or a service." That was a slap at Romney, whose health care overhaul in Massachusetts did include a mandate. But Romney faced a question about that law only at the very end of his 22 minutes on stage and was not pressed on the issue.