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.
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 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.
The event comes as evangelical conservatives, a powerful force in Iowa's caucuses, still have yet to rally around 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 event, a sharp departure from the 10 GOP debates that have already been held in the 2012 campaign, also included Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
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.
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.
Paul and 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.
"I couldn't understand what it was that was missing out of my life," Perry said, describing the moment he turned to his Christian faith. "In every person's heart and soul there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ."
Santorum was the most aggressive in trying to establish political edge during the event, arguing that the president must be a cultural warrior pushing for social change that reflects the nation's Judeo-Christian heritage.
Despite the religious theme, the discussion nevertheless revealed deep divisions about the role of government in shaping the nation's culture, illustrated by the libertarian-leaning Paul's rejection of an activist presidency.
"The goal of government isn't to mold society and mold people," Paul said. "The goal of government is to preserve liberty."
There was little dissention, prompting Luntz to comment: "You have more that you agree on than those small things you disagree on."
Still, the candidates were looking for votes with only six weeks until the caucuses and no consensus choice for evangelical conservatives in Iowa.
A recent Des Moines Register poll showed 37 percent of likely GOP caucus participants described themselves as born-again Christians. They are an influential bloc, and rallied to oppose the retention of the three Iowa Supreme Court justices on the ballot a year ago after the court's unanimous 2009 decision to nullify the state's statutory ban on gay marriage.
Despite the trend in Iowa to stress the cultural issues, there has been little national focus on issues central to this committed segment of the GOP base, Santorum said. Of the 10 debates, there have been only five questions on cultural issues.
The crowded field of social conservatives has created somewhat of an opening for Romney in Iowa to stand out among economic conservatives. Last year, long-time former Gov. Terry Branstad won the nomination for governor over Vander Plaats, who campaigned largely on social issues.
Branstad said Iowa Republicans' greater concern with the economy and spending could be an advantage for Romney.
"I think it could potentially help him here," he said. "You need to address the issues Iowans care about, and that's restoring fiscal responsibility and jobs."