DES MOINES – Some of the Republican infighting on display in Tuesday’s presidential debate carried over into the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Banquet Saturday as candidates with similar ideological convictions battled to prove themselves the most conservative of them all.
For nearly three hours, contenders for the GOP presidential nomination took the stage to proclaim the depth of their commitment to the pro-life movement, denounce activist judges and call on America to open up drilling and explore natural gas resources across the country.
While all the candidates got a warm reception from the audience of nearly 1,000 Christian activists, it was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who won the night's biggest applause. He drew repeated cheers with his calls to get rid of White House czars, replace Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke within 30 days, and defund Planned Parenthood and put the money toward adoption services.
“I don’t ask you to be for me,” an earnest Gingrich told the audience. “I ask you to be with me, because I think the scale of change we need is going to take eight hard difficult years.”
As he has done previously during the campaign, Gingrich challenged President Obama to a series of seven, three-hour debates, mirroring the famed confrontations between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois Senate election. “To be fair I would agree that he can use a teleprompter,” Gingrich said of Obama, drawing laughter from the audience. “After all, if you had to spend an entire three hour debate defending Obamacare, wouldn’t you want the help of a teleprompter?”
Discussion of abortion took up much of the evening's bandwidth as candidates pledged to oppose federal funding of abortion and block appointment of judges who would continue to uphold the 1972 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal nationwide. Businessman Herman Cain in particular sought to assure the audience of his commitment to pro-life causes.
“From conception, no abortions, no exceptions,” said Cain, who has been dogged all week by a controversy over a statement he made during a CNN interview that suggested abortion was a personal decision that shouldn't be regulated by the government.
Though Cain was the first speaker of the evening, the issue came up again. Texas Gov. Rick Perry questioned the retired pizza magnate's anti-abortion credentials. It is “a liberal canard to say I am personally pro-life but government should stay out of the decision,” Perry said during his speech. “If that is your view you are not pro-life. You are having your cake and eating it too.”
After Perry's remarks, Cain again defended himself, telling reporters that, as president, he would sign a federal ban on abortion if such a bill crossed his desk. “I am pro-life. I have said it, I don’t know how many times,” Cain said.
Santorum also pounced on Cain's CNN comment, calling his words, “right out of the pro-choice playbook.”
Another crowd-pleaser, the former Pennsylvania senator delivered a fiery speech about his battles against abortion and gay marriage. He ended with a highly personal story he often tells on the campaign trail about his work on the partial-birth abortion ban, which occurred at the same time he and his wife lost a newborn with a birth defect.
“I had committed myself to the Lord; I was doing the brave thing by standing up for life,” Santorum recalled to the crowd, which had gone completely quiet as his voice quavered with emotion. “And this was my answer. You took my son.”
He presented himself as the most committed conservative in the field. “You have people up here who will tell you that they’re for that, but will they push the debate? Will they have the vote? Will they take it to the American people?” he questioned.
Although this election is heavily dominated by economic issues, social issues could prove decisive in Iowa, where Republican caucus-goers tend to be dominated by evangelical voters. After the event, Kristi Honis, a voter from the Des Moines area, said that Santorum and Gingrich were the “only ones who worked the crowd.”
Even Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whose signature issue is the deficit and monetary policy, sought to identify himself with the audience, putting an emphasis on the importance of family and mixing his message of small government and spending cuts with biblical stories that illustrate the danger of authoritarian power.
“We people of faith should clearly understand how it important it is that we not become dependent on the government,” Paul told the crowd.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is investing nearly all of her campaign resources in Iowa, especially after news broke Friday that nearly her entire New Hampshire campaign staff had quit. In addition to discussing her faith, Bachmann sought to remind the audience of the foreign policy credential she had developed as a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
All of the candidates got personal in their speeches. At one point, Perry joked: , “If any of you have watched my debate performances over the last three or four times, you know that I’m far from perfect."
Cain vividly recalled how far he had come from his days as a youth, riding segregated buses in Atlanta.
“I can still remember the sign at the front of the bus that will forever be branded into my memory: white seat from the front; colored, seat from the rear.
"I can still remember that, but because of America’s ability to change, I stand here today and I own the bus with my picture on the side,” Cain said, referring to his campaign bus.
Noticeably absent from the event was one of the leading GOP presidential contenders: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who decided not to attend. After not visiting Iowa since August, Romney paid a visit Thursday -- a reflection of recent polls that show him in striking distance here. But missing big gatherings like Saturday's dinner could hurt him, said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.
“For him not to be there – I just find it very troubling,” Scheffler said. “Mitt Romney’s the big loser here tonight.”
Still it did not appear that the evening helped any one of the participants move the needle. Afterwards, members of the audience said they thought all the candidates performed well.
As Polly Doolittle of Webster City put it, “it’s kind of like fair game out there.”