DES MOINES, Iowa-Six Republican presidential hopefuls opened up about turning points in their lives in a Saturday evening forum in Iowa so different in tone and topics from most debates that moderator Frank Luntz quipped, "I feel like Dr. Phil."
Despite the shrinking window of opportunity for the GOP candidates to seize the day before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus, the six maintained a genial atmosphere for a two-hour conversation around a table, sharing their thoughts about God and giving friendly nods as rivals talked. Their relaxed demeanor belied the stakes: Every one of the six needs a burst of momentum in Iowa, if not an outright win. Each seeks the opportunity to emerge from the pack in time to consolidate a run from the right against Mitt Romney in the early South Carolina and Florida primaries.
Romney, absent for the second time in a month from an Iowa values-based event, chose to campaign in New Hampshire as The Family Leader's Thanksgiving forum served up the fare foremost on the minds of Christian conservatives in Iowa. Audience members settled back in their seats and occasionally laughed or applauded in the fan-shaped auditorium of the First Federated Church in Des Moines as Luntz, a pollster who appears frequently on the Fox News Channel, led candidates in discussions about prayer, policies, and pivotal points in their lives. (The forum,which was not nationally televised, can be viewed below.)
Luntz openly invited confession and suggested the candidates bare their souls. Rick Santorum readily accepted that invitation, with a personal narrative about his special needs daughter that amplifies his pro-life passion. He told of a moment five months after her birth, now three years ago, holding her tiny hand in the emergency room. There, he said that he faced up to the possibility that he had not fully given his heart to his child "because it wouldn't hurt as much if I lost her."
Newt Gingrich told of being taught by a grandmother about heaven and hell-"one was preferable"-then coming to a place as an adult when he had to confront a feeling of hollowness despite accomplishments. The new Iowa frontrunner, according to some recent rapidly shifting polls, also proposed abolishing the federal district court of Judge Fred Biery, a response to the judge's "ruthlessly anti-American" ban on prayer and even the freedom to say the word prayer at a Texas high school graduation.
Herman Cain choked up (Rick Perry reached over to grip his shoulder) as he talked of his fight against cancer, his wife's support, and the need to "dig deep" for faith. He joined the Antioch Baptist Church in Atlanta at age 10, and shared how he openly worried that he didn't spend enough time with his kids as he built a career.
"In every person's soul there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ," Perry said, as he outlined his rural Texas roots, adding that he often has been "driven to my knees" as governor and gave his life to Christ at age 27. He also quipped that he graduated in the top 10 of a class of 13 students.
Ron Paul mentioned Billy Graham Crusades and cited the Lutheran catechism, then spoke of the personal impact of his medical practice: "There's nothing more marvelous in medicine than sharing new life."
Michele Bachmann pointed to her parents' divorce as the root of her role as a foster mother and "broken heart for at-risk kids." Bachmann called for repeal of the Lyndon Johnson-era law that restricts pastors' political activities. Luntz pressed the issue, noting that some pastors would then oppose her views. "They do already," she said. "It's just our values that seem to get silenced." Cain chimed in that church members uncomfortable with politicking from preachers could simply choose another church.
The candidates did differentiate, although without naming rivals, particularly on a federal marriage amendment. "Gay marriage is wrong," Santorum said, insisting the states do not have a right to be wrong. Paul said government should be out of the marriage process, that it should be a church matter.
Paul and Santorum were opposites again on the moral justification for war. "The early church struggled with this," Paul said, citing St. Augustine and Christ as the Prince of Peace, then insisting that every U.S. war since World War II has been unconstitutional. Santorum's disagreement focused on Iran, which he said is blatantly seeking nuclear weapons and killing Americans by making the improvised explosive devices that have caused so many casualties. Gingrich also called for a firm policy on Iranian aggression.
Perry had a big crowd-pleaser: his proposal for a part-time Congress. He also joked at his own expense when Paul spoke of eliminating the Department of Education. "And the Department of Energy," Perry said, offering a grin and a thumbs-up to crowd laughter, recalling the agency he forgot in a recent debate.
Responding to states that do not work with faith-based agencies on adoption or foster care (see "Religious freedom?" Nov. 1) because those agencies do not place children with civil union couples, Gingrich said the movement has "gone from a quest for toleration to an imposition of intolerance." He added that he would cut off federal funds to states that discriminate against faith-based organizations. "The degree to which the left is prepared to impose intolerance and to drive out of existence traditional religion is a mortal threat to our civilization, and deserves to be taken head-on and described as what it is, which is the use of government to repress the American people against their own values."
Candidates peppered their remarks throughout the evening with references to Scripture, the nation's founders, the Declaration of Independence, American exceptionalism, and the meaning of liberty with responsibility. Gingrich also got in a dig at the Occupy movement in major cities: "Go get a job right after you take a bath."