DES MOINES, Iowa — Six Republican presidential candidates dove deep into how their religious faith influences their public life, during a free-flowing forum before a large, influential audience of social conservatives in early-voting Iowa on Saturday.
At an event sponsored by an Iowa Christian group, the candidates tried at times to gain a political edge with potent Iowa conservatives. But some of the discussion turned uncharacteristically personal, with the would-be presidents tearfully revealing formative chapters that shaped their faith.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose recent rise has renewed scrutiny of his two divorces, admitted taking the advice of a recovering alcoholic to soothe the demons he had treated for years with his own national ambition.
"I wasn't drinking but I had precisely the symptoms of someone who was collapsing under this weight," Gingrich said. "And I found myself, this emerging national figure ... trying to understand where I had failed, why I was empty and why I had to turn to God."
Businessman Herman Cain, accused of sexually harassing four subordinates more than a decade ago, didn't address the accusations which he has denied vigorously. But he acknowledged not being home enough during his career's meteoric rise to the top of a national restaurant chain, and he credited his marriage with helping him after being diagnosed with cancer in 2006.
"Before my wife and I were about to head to the care, I said, 'I can do this,'" Cain recalled. "She said, 'We can do this.'"
The event occurred while many evangelical conservatives, a powerful force in Iowa's caucuses, still look for a more conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor has not courted this segment of the voting bloc aggressively in his second bid for the GOP nomination.
The format was a sharp departure from the 10 GOP debates that have already been held in the 2012 campaign. Instead of the rapid questions and timed answers of the televised debates, Saturday's forum was held around a large dining table on a stage with fall-themed decorations, aimed at resembling a family Thanksgiving dinner scene. Pollster Frank Luntz moderated the two-hour event, which often flowed conversationally.
Notably absent was Romney, a leader in most national and Iowa polls this year but who has not campaigned vigorously for the social conservative vote.
Also missing was former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is focusing his early-state campaign on New Hampshire, where his moderate positions on gay rights are not as glaring a liability.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has campaigned aggressively for the support of evangelical conservatives in Iowa, tearfully confessed to have resisted loving his severely disabled daughter.
"I had decided that the best thing I could do was to treat her differently and not love her the way I did because it wouldn't hurt as much if I'd lost her," Santorum told an audience of 3,200 in a large, evangelical Des Moines church.
And Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann described the pain and uncertainty of her parents' divorce when she was an adolescent girl, but held back somewhat when asked what prompted her Christian awakening when she was 16.
"It is amazing to me how God uses those challenges to shape your life," Bachmann said of her parents' divorce, noting how it influenced her decision to foster more than 20 children in addition to her five biological children.
Texas' two candidates, Rep. Ron Paul and Gov. Rick Perry, did not offer revealing chapters from their lives as the others did. Paul described his early life during the Depression in Pennsylvania, and Perry, his upbringing in rural west Texas. Perry also described feeling lost upon his discharge from the Air Force at age 27.
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