WASHINGTON –- If Wednesday's Republican presidential primary debate, the first in which Texas Governor Rick Perry will participate, is a test for all the candidates, the forum that will take place in South Carolina two days prior is a minefield.
At the event, called the Palmetto Freedom Forum, Perry and the other leading candidates will each sit alone onstage for 21 minutes to face questions from conservative firebrands Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). They will be pressed on their allegiance to the tenets of conservative orthodoxy, and each will likely face a higher level of scrutiny than they would in a group setting. But that isn't the reason their campaigns may be dreading the event.
DeMint will quiz the candidates on ways to make the government smaller, while King, according to one source, will focus on immigration. But the sleeper threat will be the third panelist asking questions Monday in Columbia: Robert George, a Princeton professor who chairs the National Organization for Marriage.
George, a 56-year old constitutional scholar who leads a new vanguard of conservative culture warriors, will force each of the candidates to articulate, in detail, where they stand on both constitutional issues and also on some of the most touchy social issues of the day, pressing them when their answers are not specific or substantive enough.
"I think we need renewed fidelity to our old principles, and I think they're all going to agree with that, in theory. They're all going to agree with that as a statement," George said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "They're all going to say, 'Oh yeah, we don't need new principles, even though we have new challenges -- in some ways, unprecedented challenges."
"OK, fine. Once we get past that soundbite, what does it mean?" he said.
In addition to Perry, the candidates taking part will be former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), and former Godfathers's Pizza CEO Herman Cain.
The format will leave each of the candidates stranded in the three-man panel's crosshairs. It is not a debate. The moderators will not be the candidates' life boat –- saving them from going into detail by moving on to a different candidate or new topic -– but rather their inquisitors. (George said he and the other moderators had modeled the forum's approach in part on the Rev. Rick Warren's August 2008 forum with then-presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain.)
This is why when the subject of the forum was raised with one campaign aide this week, the only response was a groan.
George said he is aware that many of the candidates would prefer not to talk in detail about such topics as abortion, gay marriage, and affirmative action.
"Politicians are … more comfortable talking about money than they are about fundamental principles of right and wrong," George said. "They're more comfortable talking about how to do things efficiently, how to do things rationally, where rationality is a kind of instrumental rationality: turning the economy around, getting new jobs, that kind of thing -– than they are about moral issues that are deeply controversial, that touch people in the heart, not just in the pocketbook."
He shrugged off the campaign aide's concerns.
"It is what it is," he said. "They're going to be uncomfortable, sure."
George, who goes by "Robby," brought up Perry's flip-flop on gay marriage. The governor initially argued that the issue should be decided by states, citing the 10th Amendment, before backtracking and signing a pledge authored by George's group that includes a commitment to push for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and woman.
George, who has publicly criticized Perry for his initial statement, indicated he'll ask him about the issue again at the forum. He has also called out Cain for saying that he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet or to a federal judgeship if he were elected. Cain later recanted.
The event comes at a time when some on the right are already grumbling about what they say is an attempt by liberals to divert attention from the economy by focusing on the religious convictions of the Republican candidates. The New York Times' Ross Douthat and the Washington Examiner's Byron York both penned columns last week accusing liberals of distorting or misunderstanding the spiritual and intellectual influences in the Republican candidates' lives.
George, who is Catholic and has overseen the creation of an institute at Princeton that has been described as a conservative beachhead in academia, is already recognized as a major force behind efforts to move the cultural and legislative needle rightward. He is vilified by liberals and venerated by conservatives.
An adviser to former President George W. Bush during his time in the White House, George served on his bioethics council and worked on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. His involvement in such a high-profile political event –- the forum will be carried live on CNN for more than two hours -– will inevitably stoke a new round of talk on the left about George's views on gay marriage and the role of government.
Republican presidential hopefuls have focused their campaign messages and talking points on the economy and jobs, knowing that they are the top issues on most voters' minds. So Monday's forum will take them off message at least momentarily. And if a candidate says something controversial or inartful, he or she could be knocked off course for days in the middle of a high-stakes week when the campaign is entering a new level of intensity.
Romney is the one candidate, in particular, who may feel anxious heading into what is largely a Protestant Christian environment. Romney is a Mormon with strong ties to the Mormon church hierarchy. But George vowed that Romney -– who initially said he would not attend the forum and then changed his mind late last week -– would be treated the same as the others.
"Under no circumstances would I (even implicitly) design a question differently in light of a candidate's religious affiliation, be it Mormon, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, or whatever," George wrote in an email following his phone interview. "I am operating on the assumption that all the candidates share a common loyalty to the nation and its constitutional principles. What I will be inviting them to give us is a more detailed account of their understanding of those principles and their applicability to issues and challenges we as a people are facing today."
Romney's sudden about-face decision to come to the forum was seen by many as a response to Perry's entry into the race. Since declaring his candidacy in mid-August, Perry has quickly become the frontrunner in national polls.
What's unknown is the extent to which George will focus on social issues and how much he will ask about the size and scope of government. George said some of his questions will revolve around the constitutional foundation for a limited government view, such as "exactly where national government is exceeding its powers under the constitution."
"Are there agencies and departments that really should be abolished, because they do represent a stepping over the constitutional line? Has the creation of a department of education led to a degree or quality of federal intrusion into education that undermines the constitutional principle of federalism, under which education is a matter for the states, where the national government has no delegated power?"
In an interview with ABC News on Friday, George did not discuss social issues, choosing instead to focus on limited government concerns. But George's position as one of the most forceful conservative intellects currently making a case against gay marriage –- he co-authored a 43-page article on the topic in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy last year -– is likely to be a flashpoint.
George expressed little concern that his stance on the issue would spark outrage, saying he saw no reason why it would draw attention in news coverage of the forum.
"The reason I don't think that will be a big deal is that they all agree," he said of the candidates. "They agree on the principle that marriage is the conjugal union of husband and wife … I just don't see where you're going to get a difference of opinion. I just don't know what the news would be."
There was one issue George said he won't raise at the event, which is likely to calm the nerves of one of the candidates.
"We're not going to ask Michele Bachmann about her husband or about reparative therapy. It's just not relevant," he said, referring to Marcus Bachmann's Christian counseling company and the Bachmanns' belief that homosexuality is a behavior, not an immutable trait. Bachmann has been dogged by questions about whether her husband's company has advised homosexuals to try to turn straight.
"We're going to ask about principles. Now the marriage principle, we'll certainly ask about that," George said. "But it won't get into this stuff that MSNBC hosts care about and get hot under the collar about."