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The Inquisition

A few days ago I mentioned the Labor Day Palmetto Freedom Forum event for Republican presidential candidates in connection with Rick Perry's problem on immigration policy, noting that America's preeminent nativist, Steve King, will be one of the "panelists" in Columbia. (I subsequently wrote a TNR column on the possibility of a high-profile ambush of Perry by King.)

But totally aside from Perry and King and immigration policy, this event is a fascinating reflection of the obsession with ideological purity among conservatives at the moment, and of the success of the GOP's hardest-core ideologues in positioning themselves in the presidential nominating process. National Review's Katrina Trinko has the rundown on how the inquisition will work:

The event, the product of a partnership between conservative kingmakers Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) and Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa), is designed to prod the candidates into going beyond their standard sound-bite responses.

"One question that I'm confident will be asked," King says, "is, What are our first principles and how do you apply them? And, if you're elected president, what would you change to better reflect the first principles that made America great?"....

Joining King to question the candidates will be DeMint and Princeton University professor Robert George, a noted social conservative and founder of the event's sponsoring organization, the American Principles Project. The schedule gives the panel 22 minutes to quiz each candidate. That's the same length of time as a sitcom episode, but King hopes that the combination of pointed questions and answer times that can be extended beyond the one or two minutes given in standard presidential debates will lead to responses that are more thoughtful soliloquy than one-liner. "If they are just re-running something we've heard before, then I think the follow-up question might come in a little more quickly," King remarks.

So instead of a debate format where candidates are given 30 seconds to a minute to field brief questions from journalists, and perhaps engage in some scripted or unscripted interaction, the South Carolina event allows three of the most strident conservative ideologues in America to grill each candidate for an uninterrupted 22 minutes. And two of the three "panelists" happen to be large political figures in two of the first three major nominating contests in 2012. So pleasing them will be in the candidates' interests not only because they represent hard-core "base" constituencies, but because their endorsements could have a tangible effect on what happens next winter when votes are actually cast.

It's quite a power play, and unlike anything we've seen before in either party. Could anyone imagine the Left pulling off a similar coup? Yes, there was a Democratic candidates' debate at the 2007 Yearly Kos conference, but it was in a standard debate format, moderated by the exquisitely civil Joan McCarter and the decidedly non-lefty Matt Bai--not an interrogation undertaken by ideologues wielding litmus tests and raw political influence.

It should be quite a show, and will affect the presidential campaign whether or not it produces headlines.