With the Labor Day holiday marking the unofficial start to the 2012 presidential campaign, the major Republican contenders were pitching themselves to tea party activists at a forum Monday in South Carolina — site of the first primary nominating contest in the South.

The event organized by U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint was designed to probe the candidates on their views of spending, taxes and the Constitution — bedrock principles for the tea party activists whose rising clout is likely to shape the Republican nominating process.

Pledging fidelity to the Constitution and vowing to carry the tea party’s priorities to the White House, the Republican contenders appealed to their party’s libertarian activists as the strongest candidates to roll back four years of President Barack Obama’s tenure.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said the Obama administration flouted the Constitution to push a political agenda. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota stridently called Mr. Obama’s policies “unconstitutional” at the same forum on Labor Day. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the third member of his party’s top tier, told a separate town hall-style audience earlier in the day that he has a better record on jobs than the President.

It also was a prime opportunity for the candidates to level pointed — though, in many cases, familiar — criticism of Mr. Obama.

“The track record we have creating jobs, I’d put up against anyone running for president of the United States, particularly the current resident of the White House,” said Mr. Perry, whose late entry into the race and support from tea party activists threatens Mr. Romney’s one-time aura of inevitability.

And Ms. Bachmann sought to sustain her status as a movement darling and suitable alternative to Mr. Romney. Although she never engaged him directly, her remarks seemed centred on Mr. Romney.

Ms. Bachmann warned that Mr. Obama and Democrats’ health care legislation was taking away freedoms and giving Washington abject power.

“They will become a dictator over our lives,” she said of federal requirements included in the overhaul that requires Americans to have health insurance. Massachusetts requires a similar mandate.

“This is the foundation for socialized medicine. Make no mistake about it. It will change the face of this nation forever,” she warned.

After keeping the tea party at arm’s length most of this campaign, Mr. Romney appeared at two tea party-related events this holiday weekend, first in New Hampshire on Sunday and then Monday in South Carolina.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an administration who has gone further afield from the Constitution ... than the Obama administration, not just with regulation, but with energy policy, with financial regulatory policy and, with the worst example, Obamacare,” Mr. Romney said in South Carolina, outlining conservatives’ broad indictment of Mr. Obama’s tenure.

Aware of the tea party’s potential to pick the nominee, all candidates have tailored their pitches to appeal to the libertarian and grassroots activists who favour limited government and low taxes.

Ms. Bachmann, a former federal tax lawyer, called the Constitution “that sacred document” and challenged Mr. Obama’s understanding of his powers under it. She cited Mr. Obama’s advisers, whom she called “czars,” the Justice Department’s decision not to appeal a court’s overturning of a federal marriage law, and his immigration policies.

“These are areas where we see unconstitutionality,” she said of Mr. Obama, a Harvard Law School graduate and former constitutional law lecturer at the University of Chicago.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich played up the founding fathers’ writings on liberties during his appearance — “These rights are inalienable. That means no politician, no bureaucrat; no judge can take that away from you.”

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a favourite of the party’s libertarian wing, decried government largesse — “People were supposed to carry guns, not bureaucrats.” He also warned against a Washington that gives the Federal Reserve too much power, a favourite rallying cry for his steadfast supporters.

And pizza magnate Herman Cain of Georgia, who does well during these forums with amusing quips but hasn’t built a serious campaign organization, again was critical of Washington.

“The idea in Washington, D.C. ... is if you reduce the growth, that’s a cut,” he said. “That’s not a cut. That’s deceiving the American people.”

Ahead of the forum, Mr. Perry spoke at a town hall-style meeting before heading home to Texas in a last-minute schedule change to monitor raging wildfires. He phoned DeMint to apologize for his schedule change; DeMint said Perry needed to be home.

Mr. Romney, who had initially planned to bypass the South Carolina forum, changed his schedule last week to join Mr. DeMint, whose backing he enjoyed during his first presidential bid in 2008.

While Mr. DeMint is tremendously popular here in his home state and with his party’s tea party faction, he isn’t rushing to publicly pick a favourite this time and has suggested he might not back a candidate in the primary.

That’s not to say wooing the tea party is without peril.

After Washington’s debt showdown this summer, an Associated Press-GfK poll found that 46 percent of adults had an unfavourable view of the tea party, compared with 36 percent just after last November’s election.

In the northeastern state of New Hampshire, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin encouraged tea party activists to unite against Mr. Obama, while leaving open the possibility of a presidential bid.

The party’s 2008 vice presidential nominee praised Republican presidential candidates for working harder to appeal to the tea party movement.

“Now we’re seeing more and more folks realize the strength of this grassroots movement and they’re wanting to be involved,” she told hundreds of activists at a Tea Party Express rally Manchester, New Hampshre’s largest city. “I say, ‘Right on, better late than never,’ for some of these campaigns, especially.”

But Palin’s New Hampshire appearance comes amid rising frustration — and indifference — among Republicans and tea party activists in the state over her hazy intentions.

She has drawn headlines, dominated cable news coverage and raised supporters’ hopes through several recent visits to early voting states. And as she did Monday, she has consistently left open the possibility she would seek the presidency.

That said, she drew hundreds of supporters to Monday afternoon’s rally. And she was interrupted once with chants of, “Run, Sarah, run.”

“I appreciate your encouragement, I do,” she said, offering no more insight into her presidential ambitions.

The Republican presidential candidates, however, have much riding on a Ms. Palin candidacy, as she could dramatically change the dynamic of the race.

Operatives here think a Palin bid would eat into Mr. Perry’s support and therefore help Mr. Romney.

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