DES MOINES, Iowa-Republican presidential hopefuls placed their personal faith and some of their thoughts on biblical values front and center at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC) forum Saturday.
Without the acrimony or interruptions of a debate, more than 1,000 of the state's Christian conservatives took a longer look at six of the GOP presidential hopefuls as they spoke directly to the issues that motivate this group of voters. Steve Sheffler, director of the FFC's Iowa chapter, said he expected the forum would help the state's conservatives make up their minds over the next 10 weeks that lead up to the Iowa caucus.
Each candidate had nearly a half-hour to make his or her case to the crowd at the Knapp Animal Learning Center on the Iowa State Fairgrounds. Organizers allowed 10 minutes for opening remarks followed by four identical questions: two on issues of life and family, and two on energy policy from the Iowa Energy Forum, the event's sponsor.
Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry were strikingly personal in telling of their decisions to commit their lives to Jesus Christ. Bachmann told of getting on her knees and receiving Jesus as her Savior on Nov. 1, 1972, while Perry couched his growth in faith as a struggle, saying he turned to God only when he had nowhere else to go.
"I finally came to terms with the central guiding role of a personal God," Perry said, noting, "We are not called to be perfect." Perry then got a laugh by mocking his own debate performances: "You know that I am not perfect."
Rick Santorum, despite the disadvantage of speaking last in a forum that stretched over three hours, changed the tone and quietly shared with an attentive audience his emotions in dealing with the brief life of one of his children. He recalled how doctors told him and his wife during the pregnancy that the baby would not survive. The emotional pro-life plea particularly "touched hearts," said Don Racheter, president of the Public Interest Institute in Iowa.
It was Newt Gingrich who was the most compelling on policy, covering a wide range of topics and twice bringing people to their feet. While the audience was generous with applause for all the candidates, the contrast of the Gingrich campaign was on display as he received the most widespread positive reception. But many of those applauding wore stickers indicating their support for the other candidates. "The more he talks, the more he helps himself," said George Templer of Davenport.
For about 90 minutes after his remarks, the former speaker of the House lingered in the back of the hall quietly shaking hands and chatting with anyone who stepped up. Gingrich was still there a half-hour after the forum's end.
Santorum also worked the crowd, and he noted during his remarks that he was scheduled to visit his 78th of Iowa's 99 counties Sunday, far more than his nearest rival.
The frontrunner in Iowa's polls, Herman Cain, focused on America's strengths in his remarks: "I know something of America's ability to change. If it was not for America's ability to change, I wouldn't be here tonight."
Cain told of his youth in Atlanta, when he rode a segregated bus with a sign directing whites to load from the front, blacks from the back. He then shouted to enthusiastic applause: "I stand here today and I own the bus-with my name on the side."
Ron Paul, who has ardent support from small government conservatives but did not make deep inroads with evangelical voters in his 2008 presidential bid, couched his economic beliefs in biblical terms. The Texas congressman cited several verses from Scripture warning of debt and honest dealings with money.
Conspicuously absent Saturday was Mitt Romney, despite his steady performance in polls, which place him second in the Hawkeye State. According to Sheffler, the FFC had invited him as they had the other candidates, reaching out directly to the Romney campaign to no avail. Sheffler said bluntly that Romney's absence does not "sit well" with the largest constituency in Iowa's GOP caucus, particularly since Romney was making appearances in smaller venues in western Iowa earlier in the week.
Cain's recent surge in this fluctuating race was accomplished without the traditional organization or months stumping the countryside that has historically won the Hawkeye State. Bachmann had a similar surge in August, followed by a rapid rise by Perry. So far none of the candidates have had sustained momentum in the state. Sheffler does not expect the FFC to make a late endorsement in an effort to unite Iowa's evangelicals.