DES MOINES — Rogette Huntington wanted very badly to fall for someone at church last night. But she didn’t.
Huntington, a public school teacher from West Des Moines who describes herself as “conservative across the board,” was one of an estimated 3,000 people who packed First Federated Church in Des Moines for the Family Leader’s Thanksgiving Family Forum.
They heard six GOP candidates talk about faith, same-sex marriage and abortion in a campaign for the Republican presidential nomination where much of the chatter has revolved around the economy and unemployment.
Huntington watched and listened as Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, businessman Herman Cain, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota sat around a table with pollster Frank Luntz and discussed matters both earthly and divine.
The forum was a chance for the Republican aspirants to woo the Christian conservative vote that helped give Mike Huckabee an Iowa caucus win four years ago.
The night included tears from Cain and Santorum, very little bickering and quite a bit of agreement on some issues, although there were some differences in how those similarities would play out. Ron Paul, for example, said he doesn’t support abortion, but thinks it’s an issue best left to the states while the other candidates — all anti-abortion — said it could be handled at the federal level.
Paul said same-sex marriage should be handled at the local level.
Santorum and Bachmann, by contrast, said they supported a federal amendment to define marriage between a man and a woman. Santorum added that Iowans would never have same-sex marriage if it were left up to the voters, which brought applause from the crowd.
Courts — particularly the federal courts — came under withering attacks by the candidates. Gingrich said he would like to abolish the court of Judge Fred Biery for preventing a school valedictorian from praying at her high school graduation speech in Texas. Santorum one-upped him by saying he’d abolish the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Bachmann said Congress should limit the cases that courts hear.
Luntz went beyond policy questions, asking the candidates about their faith and their failings.
Perry shared the story of his upbringing in a small rural Texas town, where he dreamed about becoming a veterinarian until he ran into some tough biology classes, so he joined the Air Force. When he finished his service, Perry said, “I was lost, I could not understand what was missing out of my life. In every person’s life, there is a hole that can only be filled by Jesus.”
Cain said he became a Christian at the age of 10, but it was when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that he felt God’s presence. He choked up a few times while he shared a story of leaving the hospital with his wife after the diagnosis.
“I said ‘I can do this.’ She said ‘we,’” Cain said.
For Huntington, no one candidate was able to knock it out of the park.
“I liked some, but really impassioned? No,” she said. “What I am really impassioned about is getting the thing that we have occupying our White House out the door.”
But for Ron Gaznow, who attended with his wife, Barb, the evening helped clarify the field in his mind.
“I’m not going to say who that is, I’ll keep it to myself,” he said. “But to hear them tonight did help.”
Just as the absence of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hurt him, Barb Gaznow said.
“I think it did,” she said.