Des Moines, Iowa — 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, the rivals told deeply personal tales about faith, family and failures that left half of the six participants weeping.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum described how when his disabled daughter was born and expected to quickly die, he did not love her for her first five months to make her expected death less painful. Herman Cain choked up twice, talking about when he learned he had stage four cancer and the realization, looking back on his life, that he failed to spend enough time with his children.
Former House Speaker 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 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 that 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 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 dining room table festooned with pumpkins.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is not popular among some evangelical voters, did not participate, nor did Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who is not competing in Iowa.
Those who did participate wove their speeches with biblical passages and told the audience how they accepted Christ as their savior.
Perry said 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,” said the Texas governor, 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 every day worth living.”
The candidates generally shared a world view that loosening morals and the ouster of religion from the public sphere has contributed to the nation’s decline. Santorum said the sexual revolution and an anything-goes attitude has consequences.