By John Whitesides
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - Five Republican presidential hopefuls pledged their faith in free markets and the Constitution at a campaign forum for conservatives on Monday, although the event lost some luster when Texas Governor Rick Perry was a late no-show.
The 2012 Republican White House contenders appeared separately at the South Carolina forum but shared similar views on the need to slash government, cut taxes and repeal President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul.
"The reason I see us struggling economically is that Washington has become too assertive, too big, too demanding on the lives of the American people," said former front-runner Mitt Romney, who has fallen behind Perry in opinion polls in the Republican race for the right to face Obama in 2012.
Perry, a staunch social and religious conservative, pulled out of the forum earlier on Monday to return home to Texas and supervise the fight against rampaging wildfires.
His decision robbed the conservative sponsors of the campaign's first chance to compare the candidates directly. It also put the spotlight on Romney, who is distrusted by some conservatives for his changing views on abortion and for backing a state healthcare law that led to the Obama plan.
But Romney easily fell in line with the other contenders, pledging to repeal the healthcare plan, cut back on government regulations and return many federal powers to the states.
"I don't think I've seen an administration that has gone further afield from the Constitution," Romney said of Obama.
The forum hosted by Senator Jim DeMint, a favorite of Tea Party fiscal conservatives, was the first skirmish in a growing fight for support from the conservatives who dominate early nominating contests in states like Iowa and South Carolina.
It kicked off the busiest stretch of the 2012 Republican presidential campaign so far, with three nationally televised debates scheduled in the next three weeks.
The first will be on Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan library in California, which is now scheduled to be Perry's first appearance with his rivals on a national stage.
FOCUS ON OBAMA
In South Carolina, the candidates ignored each other to focus on Obama, who they said had dramatically expanded the reach of government. They all said they would reduce corporate taxes and free private enterprise to create more jobs.
"This economy is in grave danger of getting worse, not getting better," former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich said, warning the unemployment rate could drop further.
"Nobody should assume that 9 percent is the bottom," he said, calling Obama's job policies a "tragedy."
Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota called heavy government spending a moral issue and said the Obama healthcare plan was the first step to a nationalized health system.
"This is the foundation for socialized medicine," she said. "Make no mistake about it: it will change the face of this nation forever."
Libertarian Representative Ron Paul said the Tea Party fiscal conservatives were touting many of the proposals he had pushed for years in trying to reduce the role of the federal government.
He pledged to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he said would ease the economic burden while pumping more spending into the economy.
"I would bring them all home," he said.
DeMint and the other sponsors of the event, including Representative Steve King of Iowa, said they understood Perry's need to cancel. Perry returned to Texas after a morning appearance at a Conway, South Carolina, town hall meeting with Representative Tim Scott.
"The first priority of a governor is to the people of his state," DeMint said.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)