Des Moines, Iowa — Evangelical activists, Iowa’s most potent conservative voting bloc, are sharply divided barely 10 weeks away from the state’s leadoff caucuses.
A half-dozen GOP contenders sought Saturday to sharpen their Christian conservative credentials, and at times allay doubts, in an effort to gain any edge with this influential group before the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses.
Businessman Herman Cain sought to clarify his position on abortion after suggesting this week the issue was a matter of choice. He declared before roughly 1,000 devout Iowa social conservatives at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition that he believed human life began “from conception. No abortions. No exceptions.”
He later said in answering a question from a panelist, “I believe abortion should be clearly stated as illegal across this country.”
Cain has risen sharply in the polls recently, stirring the interest of tea party activists and Republicans drawn to the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO’s business background and outsider status.
But he has also drawn new scrutiny, and came under attack by some of his fellow Republican candidates after comments in a CNN interview this week.
“What I’m saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make,” Cain told CNN.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has reached out aggressively to evangelical conservatives in Iowa, seized on the comments and criticized Cain last week. Santorum was expected to speak later Saturday.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry took a veiled jab at Romney, who had supported abortion rights but declared his opposition during his term as Massachusetts governor as he was weighing a presidential bid.
“Pro-life is not a matter of campaign convenience,” said Perry, who has stepped up his attacks on Romney’s conservative profile.
But Perry also noted “It is a liberal canard to say I am personally pro-life but government should stay out of that decision.”
“That is not true,” Cain said when asked about Perry’s comments. “That is just an attempt to try to discredit me. The statement that I made that wasn’t played with the clip that everybody’s going crazy over — I am pro-life from conception. No abortions, no exceptions.”
Evangelical conservatives have yet to rally around any single candidate aggressively courting them, seeking the kind of lift that carried former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to victory in the leadoff caucuses in 2008.
Activists attending the coalition’s forum at the Iowa State Fairgrounds weighed pitches from three candidates, including Santorum, Rep. Michele Bachmann and Perry, Cain, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.