The goal of the American Principles Project Palmetto Freedom Forum on Monday in Columbia, S.C., was a different kind of debate that would break new ground.

Boy, did it succeed.

Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Congressman Steve King of Iowa, and the founder of the American Principles Project, Princeton Professor Robert George, asked the questions. (Full disclosure: Professor George is also the founding chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, which I co-founded).

Five major GOP candidates stood nakedly on the stage, taking deep questions about constitutional principles—without a podium or a reporter in sight—for 20 minutes.

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Strong, new, and newsworthy commitments emerged from almost all of the candidates on social issues, aka “civil rights.”

For the first time, presidential candidates were asked: Does the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection apply to unborn human beings, and if so, doesn’t Congress have express constitutional authority to enforce this guarantee?

(Herman Cain told me afterward that this was the one question that surprised him.)

Michele Bachmann opened ground on the life issue by saying “yes,” while Mitt Romney showed he understood George’s question by saying he would decline to create a “constitutional crisis” over the issue by confronting the court and instead would pledge to appoint justices who would interpret the Constitution correctly.

Ron Paul retreated to his Maginot Line of “states rights.” Murder, he points out, is a state issue and so should abortion be. Well, yes, pointed out George, unless and until some state decides to deprive a whole class of human beings of the protection of their lives, in which case the 14th Amendment expressly authorizes Congress (not the courts) to step in to remedy this gross violation of civil rights.

Also newsworthy: For the first time, all the major contenders (except Texas Gov. Rick Perry) have pledged to nominate a vice presidential candidate who supports life and marriage. Romney at first left himself some wiggle room, but in the end firmly committed to a pro-life, pro-marriage veep: “These are important enough issues that the person I select would share my views,” he promised.

And for the first time, major presidential candidates committed to protecting people and religious organizations in danger of being excluded from the public square because they do not support gay marriage or gay adoption.

George raised the issue of Catholic and Protestant adoption and foster care agencies in Illinois that are being excluded from participating in helping children because they do not place children with same-sex couples in civil unions.

Romney lived through this kind of thing in Massachusetts, where he was one of the few public voices standing up for Catholic Charities’ rights to help orphaned and abused children—and he was eloquent about the principles involved:

“I believe in religious tolerance and religious liberty,” Romney said. “That means, to me, we are not going to force people of faith to violate their faith in order to practice their professions … I’m not one of those who says get rid of the conscience protections,” thereby forcing people to do things that violate their faith.

Romney went on: “I would say in Massachusetts, about half of adoptions were being placed by Catholic Charities. And they were excluded because they would not place children in homes with same-sex couples. That’s a mistake; we should permit people to apply their faith,” especially when there are many other agencies who can deliver services.

Two people were missing in Columbia: Perry, who was drawn away by the urgent wildfires spreading across Texas, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

As arguably one of the more principled conservatives in the race, I missed hearing what Santorum could have added to the debate over the powers of Congress under the 14th Amendment to guarantee equal protection to unborn human beings.

But thanks to the APP Palmetto Freedom Forum, he, like Michele Bachmann, has an opportunity to pick up the 14th Amendment gauntlet Mitt Romney deemed too hot to handle.