For the candidates, tonight’s forum in Des Moines, Iowa, was a chance to get personal.
Hosted by social conservative group The Family Leader, and moderated by Frank Luntz (who jokingly referred to himself as “Dr. Phil” at one point), the group discussion encouraged candidates to share their views on faith and family.
It was Rick Santorum who delivered the night’s most emotional moment, as he recounted his evolving relationship with his disabled daughter, Bella, now three years old. Bella, who has trisomy 18, had had a dire prognosis from birth, and Santorum and his wife, Karen, were warned not to expect her to live long. At one point, Bella was on the verge of dying, and a choked-up Santorum recalled how he had abruptly understood he had never loved her as much because he had wanted to avoid the pain that would occur when she died.
“I remember holding that finger, looking at her, and realizing what I’d done,” Santorum said. “I had been exactly what I had said that I’d fought against [when working to ban partial birth abortion]… . I had seen her as less of a person because of her disability. I prayed that moment, ‘Please, please let her live.’ I’ll do everything to commit to her. Not just her, but every child like her.”
“She made it,” he added.
Newt Gingrich did not directly address his past marriages and divorces, but did note that there was pain he had “caused others, which I regret deeply.” He talked about reading Alcoholics Anonymous tome The Big Book, noting that while he didn’t have a drinking problem, he had realized “there was part of me that was truly hollow” even as his political career was taking off. “I had to recognize how limited I was and how much I had to depend on [God],” Gingrich reflected.
“I believe I have had a series of little failures rather than one great big disaster,” Herman Cain mused, remarking that one regret he had was not spending more time with his two children as they were growing up, due to the amount of time he was working. Rick Perry talked about being “too busy for God” during his college and Air Force years and returning to God as a 27 year old man. “In every person’s soul,” he said, “there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Policy matters were also discussed. Gingrich touted Princeton professor Robert George’s proposal that the 14th amendment has enabled Congress to pass legislation stating personhood begins at conception — a piece of legislation that Gingrich argued could include a clause that stated it was not up for judicial review. Ron Paul said that if, ten years ago, Republicans had supported his idea to remove abortion as an area subject to federal jurisdiction, “we would have save millions of lives” by allowing states to make their own abortion laws. Santorum said that his call to include arguments against the Supreme Court’s prior decision allowing partial birth abortion in the legislation passed banning partial birth abortion helped push the Supreme Court to eventually overturn the earlier decision. “That is a track record of standing up to the court, not just a plan,” he said.
Michele Bachmann talked about her work to pass an amendment making marriage between a man and woman only in Minnesota, an effort that made her “enemy number one,” she said. “We had to get our children out of the home because all of the death threats,” Bachmann recalled, noting that she had continued to work with Minnesota state legislators on the matter after she had been elected to Congress. The amendment will be on the state ballot in 2012.
Mitt Romney did not attend the forum, a fact which did not go unnoticed. The Family Leader’s head, Bob Vander Plaats, told ABC News, “He stiffed us … he lacks judgment.”