By Hannah Hess | IowaPolitics.com
DES MOINES, IA. -- Gathered shoulder to shoulder around a Thanksgiving-themed table, five GOP presidential candidates vowed to defend Christian values from moral threats on Saturday by outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage.
A sixth candidate, Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, rejected the idea of federal bans, before the crowd of 3,000 gathered at First Federated Church, an evangelical church, saying he opposed both practices but believes the decision to be left up to the states.
"The law can't reflect the morality of the people ... our goal ought to be to preserve liberty," Paul told moderator and Republican pollster Frank Luntz.
After the party presidential forum, audience members said the Texas congressman was the outlier, because of his libertarian viewpoints, to an otherwise unified discussion of traditional, faith-based values between the six candidates in attendance. To the disappointment of organizers, former Massachusetts Gov.Mitt Romney skipped the forum.
"Tonight, we were looking for candidates who embrace a biblical worldview," said Scott Murray, of Ankeny, after the two-hour, conversational Thanksgiving Family Forum, organized by leading Iowa conservative Bob Vander Plaats.
Vander Plaats serves as chief executive officer of The Family Leader, a Christian conservative nonprofit organization
Retired Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain used the night to clear up his stance on abortion, an issue social conservatives have questioned since a Fox News interview in October during which he suggested women have the right to choose.
"You can have all the pursuit of happiness that you want, as long as you don't infringe upon someone else's life, or someone else's liberty," Cain said. "That includes the life of the unborn."
Former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum reminded voters of his presence in the state during The Family Leader's successful 2010 campaign to remove three Iowa Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009.
Santorum called marriage rights for same-sex couples an issue with "dramatic consequences to faith, family and the education system that radically changes the entire moral fabric of our society."
Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann warned the crowd that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, would open the door to "taxpayer-subsidized abortion" and vowed to repeal the law.
"We're in a whole new universe today, (more) than we've ever even comprehended, because of Obamacare," she said. "Those of us who believe in moral issues have lost these battles because chips have been put on the side of the left."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry tied his commitment to ending abortion to foreign aid, saying that sending money to China is immoral because the country aborts "35,000 children a day."
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he would urge Congress to pass a personhood law, defining life under the 14th Amendment to "undo Roe v. Wade with one legislative action," referring to the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. Mississippi voters earlier this month rejected the personhood measure by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin.
Across town at the Iowa Democratic Party's annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the Thanksgiving-themed forum "fitting because I have never seen such a collection of turkeys."
Emanuel praised Obama for improving the quality of life for 47 million Americans with no health insurance by passing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and making progress on improving access to education.
At the forum, candidates were given equal time to discuss social policy approaches and share their personal struggles including Gingrich's infidelity in two past marriages, and Perry's brief stray from his faith in his early 20s.
Gingrich said his struggles to find faith "has required a great deal of pain, some of which I have caused others, which I regret deeply."
"All of that has required going to God to seek reconciliation," he said, "to seek God's acceptance that I had to recognize how limited I was, and how much I had to depend on him."
The audience had little reaction.
During two emotional parts of the evening, Cain choked up — first when describing the 2006 visit to his doctor's office during which he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer; then while confessing that he may not have spent enough time with his children as they were growing up.
Santorum also became tearful when describing the pain of raising his 3-year-old disabled daughter, Bella.
"The format was refreshing," said Bachmann supporter Danny Carroll, of Grinnell. "The candidates had an opportunity to speak from their hearts."
Carroll and Murray, who supports Gingrich, agreed that the forum may not have helped undecided voters make up their minds in advance of the state's Jan. 3 caucuses, but said they appreciated the sincerity and broad range of subjects discussed during the Saturday gathering.
"It was terrific, because they're not watching and listening for a buzzer to go off," said Linda Rudolph, of Earlham, a Cain supporter.
Compared to televised debates, "they seem much more relaxed," Rudolph said.
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