Six Republican presidential candidates went head-to-head Saturday with some of the nation's conservative attorneys general to discuss their views on the Constitution, a forum that produced some illuminating moments from some of the contenders.
Asked whether he supported cap and trade legislation to reduce greenhouse gases, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that an ad he made in 2007 with the current House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi - in which he promoted bipartisan action to solve climate change - was "the dumbest single thing I've done in the last few years."
Cap and trade would create a bartering system for pollution allowances among industries, thereby allowing companies that reduce emissions to profit and polluters to pay more. Although similar trading allowances have worked to reduce pollution in the past - notably for emissions that cause acid rain - critics say cap and trade would increase the cost of energy.
Gingrich's rivals have used the ad against him. Texas Gov. Rick Perry's campaign has also distributed a Gingrich comment from a 2007 interview with PBS in which he said he would "strongly support" a cap and trade system.
During his appearance, Perry made a defeated-sounding plea to voters. "I hope everybody will give me a second look," he said in his closing statement. During his questioning, he struggled to identify the presidential powers he says would allow him to use executive orders to wipe out major elements of the health care law.
Instead, he said he would appoint agency heads who share his views on reversing the law. "I'm saying we can stop parts of it," he said. "The other parts obviously would have to be done by the rules standpoint."
The forum was hosted by former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and held at Fox's television studios in New York City. All of the major contenders participated except for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who declined the invitation. Absent, too, was businessman Herman Cain, who dropped out of the race earlier in the day after multiple sex-related scandals and below-par performances on issues on the campaign trail. Questioners included attorneys general Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma, Pam Bondi of Florida and Ken Cuccinelli of Virginia.
Reflecting widespread concerns among conservatives about former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the questioners pressed him on the health care law he signed in Massachusetts that closely resembles what became President Obama's national health care law. "I'll say thank you for the compliment but why didn't you give me a call?" Romney asked rhetorically, saying Mr. Obama should have spoken with him about the limits of the Massachusetts legislation nationally. But he said he was happy with the law in his state.
Romney also attacked President Obama for his environmental policies. "We all like the renewables, but renewables alone are not going to power this economy," he said, suggesting that efforts to drill for natural gas and explore other energy sources are being suppressed to force people to turn to wind and solar energy. Romney also called for revamping the National Labor Relations Board, but said he does not believe it's necessary to get the federal government out of all aspects of labor law.
The attorneys general sparred with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas over the necessity of laws to prevent domestic terrorism and other criminal acts. "There are laws on the books for violent acts, but if you think you can pass enough laws to prevent all crimes and all acts of violence, just think of the acts of violence that occur on our households," Paul said. "Are you going to put cameras in every household?"
Paul was also pressed by Cuccinelli to explain why his federal budget proposal does not make significant cuts to the big entitlement programs, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Paul said while he believes the programs are unconstitutional, he wants to allow people to "transition" out of them.
Rep. Michele Bachmann took a hard line on immigration, saying she supports deportation of all illegal immigrants in the United States. She struggled on other issues, however, including whether she supported state mandates for people to buy health insurance and how to deal with interstate environmental conflicts without an Environmental Protection Agency.
Bachmann said states "certainly" had the authority to require people to buy health insurance, after the questioners pointed out previous statements she had made saying statewide mandates are unconstitutional.
On the EPA, Bachmann said interstate conflicts would have to be resolved on a "case by case basis" through negotiation. When Cuccinelli pointed out that there is no legal foundation for such negotiation, Bachmann said there may need to be legislation and also suggested moving some of the EPA's responsibilities to others departments.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who has made social issues a major campaign theme, was probed about the role of the federal government in moral and social issues. He argued that the president has the "power to start a national discussion" and voiced his support for federal amendments banning same-sex marriage and abortion.