Tears and Stories of Faith at Unconventional Iowa Forum

The GOP contenders, minus Romney, break down and praise the Lord at a social conservative group's event

DES MOINES -- Six Republican candidates gathered around a table in a church here Saturday for a presidential forum that felt more like a faith-based support group than a campaign event.

They told stories about coming to Jesus and children fighting for life. They unburdened their hearts of their greatest pain. Three of them -- Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich -- cried; the others consoled them.

The moderator, celebrity pollster Frank Luntz, had promised a different kind of discussion, and that was what he delivered. It lacked the acrimony -- or the specifics -- of the candidate debates and the canned feel of other "cattle call"-style forums.

Instead, the event, in which the candidates were arrayed around a "Thanksgiving" table on a stage before an audience of about 3,000 in the pews, had a meandering feel. Left to their own devices, without time limits or tough questioning, politicians will, after all, talk about themselves.

If the forum, hosted by a social-conservative organization called the FAMiLY LEADER at a Des Moines megachurch, didn't offer deeper insights into the contenders' policy differences, it did illustrate how far they were willing to go to appeal to Iowa's social conservatives. There was much pledging to amend the Constitution to ban abortion and gay marriage, trashing of secularists and the Supreme Court, and praising Jesus.

"In every person's heart, in every person's soul, there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said.

The tears started with Cain, who told of having his faith tested by his colon cancer diagnosis a few years ago. Then Santorum, as he tends to do, upped the ante, telling the story of his young daughter who was born with a Down Syndrome-like condition. It's a tale he often tells, in searing detail; there was a moment, he said, when Bella was 5 months old and fighting for her life, when he realized he'd kept himself from fully loving her because he was afraid to lose her. Bella, now 3, continues to battle health problems, he said.

"One of the reasons I'm here tonight," he concluded, was his commitment to special-needs children. "It's a world with socialized medicine where children like Bella ... do not get the care that they need," he added.

Gingrich was next, and he told of a friend's son born with a rare heart condition. Cue the tears. He also recounted having discovered his spiritual side after he embarked on his political career but found he still felt empty inside.

"I was remarkably successful in many ways," he said, but "there was a part of me that was truly hollow." He wasn't an alcoholic, but he started reading Alcoholics Anonymous literature to find what was missing, and it turned out to be God.

Luntz pressed the others to talk about their failures, and Cain said he wished he'd been home more when his children were young.

"What do you say to them about that now?" Luntz said gravely. Cain broke down. "I feel like Dr. Phil," Luntz cracked. But Cain, once he recovered his composure, said it was basically no big deal -- his children didn't hold it against him.

Bachmann also talked about her personal salvation, though she didn't cry -- an action that comes freighted with different potential pitfalls for female candidates. Perry was humble, perhaps too humble, repeatedly expressing awe that a kid like him who grew up without indoor plumbing could get to share the stage with such august figures. "I always wanted to be a veterinarian ... and then He introduced me to organic chemistry, and I became a pilot in the United States Air Force," he joked.

Paul, with his cerebral libertarianism, was the odd one out, declining to get personal and arguing that the way to preserve traditional marriage is not more but less government involvement in it.

The race's front-runner, Mitt Romney, was absent, and though the event's organizers criticized him for it, it was hard to imagine how he could have benefited from being part of the occasion. Squeamish and embattled on social issues, and with a personal faith that many Christian conservatives regard as exotic at best, Romney spent the day in New Hampshire.

Image credit: Getty Images/Emmanuel Parisse