DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Six Republican presidential candidates dove deep into how their religious faith influences their public life, during a free-flowing forum before a large, influential audience of social conservatives in early-voting Iowa on Saturday.

At an event sponsored by an Iowa Christian group, the candidates tried at times to gain a political edge with potent Iowa conservatives. But some of the discussion turned uncharacteristically personal, with the would-be presidents tearfully revealing formative chapters that shaped their faith.

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose recent rise has renewed scrutiny of his two divorces, admitted taking the advice of a recovering alcoholic to soothe the demons he had treated for years with his own national ambition.

Businessman Herman Cain, accused of sexually harassing four subordinates more than a decade ago, didn’t address the accusations which he has denied vigorously. But he acknowledged not being home enough during his career’s meteoric rise to the top of a national restaurant chain.

And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has campaigned aggressively for the support of evangelical conservatives in Iowa, tearfully confessed to have resisted loving his severely disabled daughter.

“I had decided that the best thing I could do was to treat her differently and not love her the way I did because it wouldn’t hurt as much if I’d lost her,” Santorum told an audience of 3,200 in a large, evangelical Des Moines church.

The event comes as evangelical conservatives, a powerful force in Iowa’s caucuses, still have yet to rally around a more conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor has not courted this segment of the voting bloc aggressively in his second bid for the GOP nomination.

The event, a sharp departure from the 10 GOP debates that have already been held in the 2012 campaign, also included Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Instead of the rapid questions and timed answers of the televised debates, Saturday’s forum was held around a large dining table on a stage with fall-themed decorations, aimed at resembling a family Thanksgiving dinner scene. Pollster Frank Luntz moderated the two-hour event, which often flowed conversationally.

Notably absent was Romney, a leader in most national and Iowa polls this year but who has not campaigned vigorously for the social conservative vote.

Also missing was former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is focusing his early-state campaign on New Hampshire, where his moderate positions on gay rights are not as glaring a liability.

Bachmann described the pain and uncertainty of her parents’ divorce when she was an adolescent girl, but held back somewhat when asked what prompted her Christian awakening when she was 16.

“It is amazing to me how God uses those challenges to shape your life,” Bachmann said of her parents’ divorce, noting how it influenced her decision to foster more than 20 children in addition to her five biological children.

Paul and Perry did not offer revealing chapters from their lives as the others did. Paul described his early life during the Depression in Pennsylvania, and Perry, his upbringing in rural west Texas. Perry also described feeling lost upon his discharge from the Air Force at age 27.

“I couldn’t understand what it was that was missing out of my life,” Perry said, describing the moment he turned to his Christian faith. “In every person’s heart and soul there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Santorum was the most aggressive in trying to establish political edge during the event, arguing that the president must be a cultural warrior pushing for social change that reflects the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage.

Despite the religious theme, the discussion nevertheless revealed deep divisions about the role of government in shaping the nation’s culture, illustrated by the libertarian-leaning Paul’s rejection of an activist presidency.

“The goal of government isn’t to mold society and mold people,” Paul said. “The goal of government is to preserve liberty.”

There was little dissention, prompting Luntz to comment: “You have more that you agree on than those small things you disagree on.”

Still, the candidates were looking for votes with only six weeks until the caucuses and no consensus choice for evangelical conservatives in Iowa.

A recent Des Moines Register poll showed 37 percent of likely GOP caucus participants described themselves as born-again Christians. They are an influential bloc, and rallied to oppose the retention of the three Iowa Supreme Court justices on the ballot a year ago after the court’s unanimous 2009 decision to nullify the state’s statutory ban on gay marriage.

Despite the trend in Iowa to stress the cultural issues, there has been little national focus on issues central to this committed segment of the GOP base, Santorum said. Of the 10 debates, there have been only five questions on cultural issues.

The crowded field of social conservatives has created somewhat of an opening for Romney in Iowa to stand out among economic conservatives. Last year, long-time former Gov. Terry Branstad won the nomination for governor over Vander Plaats, who campaigned largely on social issues.

Branstad said Iowa Republicans’ greater concern with the economy and spending could be an advantage for Romney.

“I think it could potentially help him here,” he said. “You need to address the issues Iowans care about, and that’s restoring fiscal responsibility and jobs.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Comments (15)
  1. j speedbag 64 says:

    pull out the shovels,the gop will leave us up to our necks with their bs….what a bunch of weirdo’s……cain,bachmann,paul,and newt…..

    1. StraycatStrut says:

      Anyone is better than then Progressive Socialist in the White House now.

      1. Frankie says:

        The last evangelical president led us into the great recession, you want more of the same? PT Barnum was correct, there is a sucker born every minute.

        1. Callina says:

          And where, exactly, is our CURRENT President leading us?

          1. Tom says:


            The hole was already dug before Obama took office! Do you remember how many jobs the economy was losing before Obama took office? About 500,000. You need to quit watching FOX NEWS!

            1. Callina says:

              I do not watch Fox News. I probably watch the same news you do.

              However, if you insist that the hole was already dug, then consider this:

              When in hole… STOP DIGGING. Instead, this President has tripled our debt. If you don’t like the hole that was dug… fill it in! Don’t make it bigger!

              I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with some convoluted logic to refute this. Have at it. I’ll be off to work and to plan for the coming economic future.

              Have a nice day.

              1. Tom says:


                So are you saying adding debt unto existing debt is far worse than a President in 2000 who was handed a surplus and quickly turned it into debt in a short period of time?

                And considering how deep the hole was dug and if you thought the hole would be filled in already that is being delusional. When Obama took office the economy was bleeding badly and is the economy still bleeding yes it is but not to the extent it was.

                Right now the problem is not enough demand. And until demand comes back companies will feel no need to hire no matter how many tax cuts you give them.

              2. Stop Embarrassing Yourself says:

                “I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with some convoluted logic to refute this.”

                How about some convoluted facts to refute this? Ever thought about quitting your whining and actually boning up on the facts for a change? It’s harder than just shooting your mouth off, but maybe then you’d quit feeling so sorry for yourself.

                Then again, it does take a certain amount of effort, so I ain’t gonna hold my breath.

                it’s just the same old nonsense from these people, over and over and over.

      2. Tom says:


        We are all Socialist!

      3. Again And Again says:

        Obama’s a Socialist!! Blah, blah, blah. The same old nonsense. Gimme a break!! Ever thought about actually boning up on the facts for a change? It’s harder than just shooting your mouth off.

        Then again, it does take a certain amount of effort, so I ain’t gonna hold my breath.

  2. zee the reporter says:

    Six clowns!

  3. Blessed up North says:

    So when these hypocrites fail, are they going to blame God? They will say He let them down.
    If they win, God bless him. If they lose, it’s His fault.
    That doesn’t sound to Christian like does it.

  4. Tom says:

    That is funny all the nuts on stage trying to convince the nuts in the audience who is the nuttiest worthy of their endorsement. And the other thing is these people say they want gov’t out of our private lives but that isn’t true either!

  5. Murph says:

    Social conservatives seems to be a bit confusing of a handle for what we are witnessing from these candidates and their handlers! Leave it to the GOP to make things like genocide of the elderly be called by a sweet sounding name! Do they have even a clue as to how much loathing ordinary people have of them? I wonder,because if they win in 2012 and do what they want to do after doing nothing for anyone but the rich for ten years now.They should have just a sniff of a hint that vengeance could play into the equation! Personally I would step on them like they were bugs.Even though they play act at being Joeseph and Mary!

  6. Ringer says:

    I will not hire anyone as long as Obama is President !

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