A gathering of GOP presidential candidates on Saturday was unlike any other this year, when instead of finger-pointing and slashing at one another's records, they told deeply personal tales about faith, family and failures that left half of the six participants weeping.
Rick Santorum described how, when his disabled 3-year-old daughter was born, he did not let himself love her for the first five months to make her expected death less painful. Herman Cain choked up twice, talking about when he learned he had Stage 4 cancer and the realization, looking back on his life, that he failed to spend enough time with his children.
Newt Gingrich grew emotional when he described a close friend’s son who spent six years having a series of tumors removed from his brain, and he also obliquely touched upon his history of infidelity when he described how he is happier now than before because of his faith.
"All of that has required a great deal of pain, some of which I have caused others, which I regret deeply," he said. "All of that has required going to God to seek reconciliation; also to seek God’s acceptance that I had to recognize how limited I was and how much I had to depend on him."
The emotional responses prompted moderator Frank Luntz to say, "I feel like Dr. Phil."
The two-hour event at First Federated Church was put on by the Family Leader, an umbrella group of abortion and gay marriage opponents who have united to increase their clout in the 2012 Iowa caucuses. Nearly 3,000 religious leaders and conservative activists attended. Socially conservative and evangelical voters are a key voting bloc and helped propel Mike Huckabee to a surprise caucus win in 2008, but they have yet to coalesce around a candidate this year.
Outside the church, Occupy Des Moines protesters chanted. Inside, the event was Thanksgiving-themed, with the six candidates and a moderator seated around a table festooned with pumpkins.
They were asked to dress as though they were going to Thanksgiving dinner. When they arrived at the table, Michele Bachmann picked up the water pitcher and filled everyone’s drinking glasses.
Those who did participate wove their speeches with Biblical passages and told the audience how they accepted Christ as their savior.
Perry said that when he joined the Air Force, "I was too busy for God," but when he returned to Paint Creek, Texas, he was lost and unhappy.
"Something was missing out of my life. In every person’s heart, in every person’s soul, there is a hole that could be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ," the Texas governor said, as a men in the crowd yelled "Amen!"
"As a 27-year-old young man, that’s when I truly gave my life to Christ and it has made everyday worth living," Perry said.
The candidates generally shared a world view that looser morals and efforts to oust religion from the public sphere have contributed to the nation’s decline. Santorum said the sexual revolution and an anything-goes attitude have consequences.
"This is not our founders’ vision,” said the former senator from Pennsylvania. "It’s a corruption of liberty. Our founders understood that liberty is not what you want to do but what you ought to do."
Gingrich said the natural conclusion was the Occupy Wall Street protesters.
"The Occupy movement starts with the premise we all owe them everything," said the former House speaker, noting that the protesters are sleeping on property that is not theirs, using businesses’ restrooms and blocking people who are trying to get to work. "Go get a job right after you take a bath."
Cain, a former corporate chief executive, said the faithful must be more aggressive in speaking their minds and not worry about the "political correctness police."
"Those of us, people of faith, of strong faith, have allowed non-faith elements to intimidate us into not fighting back. I believe we’ve been too passive," he said.
Bachmann said the tax code should be amended so that church leaders don’t fear losing their tax-exempt status if they speak about politics.
"Probably the greatest amount of censorship today occurs in the pulpits of churches because we have a law that limits pastors from what they can say about politics in the pulpit," the congresswoman from Minnesota said. "That’s not the American way."
There were few policy differences because they largely agree. But as usual, when there were differences, they typically involved Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
While the other candidates largely support a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman, Paul said he opposed such an effort and would prefer that government got out of the marriage business. When candidates, such as Gingrich and Santorum, took hawkish war policies, Paul said every foreign conflict since World War II was unconstitutional.
Even when they disagreed, it lacked the sharp tenor of prior debates. But the niceness was short-lived. Before the event even ended, Bachmann’s campaign sent out an email blasting Gingrich’s track record on abortion.
Iowa was frenetic with campaign activity on Saturday. In the evening, the Republican candidates headed to Altoona to attend a birthday fundraiser for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad that was expected to raise more than $250,000. Across town in Des Moines, the Democrats held their premier fundraiser of the year, which was headlined by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff.
Iowa launched Obama’s historic candidacy in 2008, when his caucus win over Hilary Rodham Clinton raised his profile on the political map. Iowa also went Democratic in the general election, but economic uncertainty has made it a swing state this time.
Emanuel was expected to argue that Obama made difficult decisions to save the nation.
“The President did not make choices based on politics. He made them because of his principles. He did not make choices for the next election, he made them for the next generation,” he was expected to say, according to prepared remarks.