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GOP Hopefuls Open Up In Bid For Christian Vote

Nov 20, 2011
Originally published on November 20, 2011 1:51 pm

Six Republican presidential hopefuls gathered in Des Moines, Iowa, Saturday, and each made a pitch for the state's very important Christian conservative vote.

The event was not a debate, but a roundtable discussion. The candidates sat side-by-side at what was described as a Thanksgiving table, complete with pumpkins and autumn leaves. Not present at the table was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who chose not to attend.

Each told personal stories about how faith helped them through difficult times. There was no talk of the economy, but social policy did reveal some division during an event that mostly showed agreement among the candidates.

The event was sponsored by the leading conservative Christian political force in the state of Iowa, an organization called The Family Leader.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we want to have a movement that transforms this culture to biblical and constitutional worldview with elected leaders who adhere to the foundations and lead like they know what the foundation of this country is all about," said Family Leader president Bob Vander Plaats.

'So Help Me God'

The moderator, political consultant and pollster Frank Luntz, started the discussion by asking the six candidates to think about the oath of office.

"At the end of that oath are the words, 'So help me God.' When you hear those four words, if you have the privilege to say them, what will come to mind?" he asked.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's answer was one of several Saturday that appeared deeply emotional for those on stage.

"'So help me God' is almost a plea. It's not part of an oath," Perry said. "I look at it as a plea. I've been driven to my knees multiple times as the governor of the state of Texas, making decisions that are life and death, that have huge impacts on people's lives."

There was, at times, a confessional tone to the proceedings, as when the candidates were asked about things they've sought forgiveness for. Businessman Herman Cain spoke of how his commitment to his business career meant he didn't spend enough time with his family. He too choked up as he spoke.

"I didn't believe that I was home enough when my kids were growing up," he said.

Then it was Newt Gingrich's turn. He has been married three times, and has acknowledged extra-marital affairs in the past. He mentioned none of that specifically, but he did offer something when asked about personal failings.

"I've been very, very fortunate and very blessed. Callista and I have a wonderful marriage, and we're very close to our two daughters, Kathy and Jackie, and their husbands, and I'm extremely close to Maggie and Robbie, who are my two grandchildren," he said. "But all of that has required a great deal of pain, some of which I have caused others, which I regret deeply."

Policy And The Role Of Government

Policy was also discussed. Same-sex marriage and abortion were prominent. Rep. Michele Bachmann criticized the judicial system and the courts.

"They're not the lawmakers. It's the Congress that are the lawmakers. ... I will get behind legislation in the Congress, and I will also get behind the Federal Marriage Amendment," she said. "I will do whatever it takes because the first and foremost unit of government in this nation is the family, and the family is defined as one man, one woman. No other definition will do."

On the question of whether states should be prevented from acting on their own to allow same-sex marriage and abortion, Rep. Ron Paul was the only one to offer words of caution about going too far.

"I would prefer, under our system of laws, that all of these problems be taken care of in a constitutional manner, which I would defer to the states," he said. "I think the reason we fight and fume over this is because we have too much government everywhere."

Apart from that, agreement dominated, making it hard for any one of the six to consolidate the Christian conservative vote.

As for Romney, one audience member said it was like a family member deciding to stay away from Thanksgiving dinner.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Meanwhile, six Republican presidential hopefuls gathered in Des Moines yesterday and each made a pitch for the state's very important Christian conservative vote. The event was not a debate but a roundtable discussion. The candidates sat side by side at what was described as a Thanksgiving table, complete with pumpkins and autumn leaves. Not present at the table was former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney who chose not to attend.

But each of the candidates who did told personal stories about how faith helped them through difficult times. There was no mention of the economy.

NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports,

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: This event was sponsored by the leading conservative Christian political force in the State of Iowa, an organization called the Family Leader. It's president is Bob Vander Plaats.

BOB VANDER PLAATS: Ladies and gentlemen, we want to have a movement that transforms this culture to a Biblical and constitutional world view, with elected leaders who adhere to the foundation of this country and lead like they know what the foundation of this country is all about.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: The moderator, political consultant and pollster Frank Luntz started by asking the six candidates to think about the oath of office.

FRANK LUNTZ: And at the end of that oath are the words: So help me God. If you have the opportunity and the privilege to say them, what will come to mind?

GONYEA: Texas Governor Rick Perry's answer was one of several yesterday that appeared deeply emotional for those on stage.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: So help me God is almost a plea. It's not part of an oath, I look at it as part of a plea for God. I've been driven to my knees multiple times as governor of State of Texas, Rick, making decision that are life and death that have huge impacts on people lives.

GONYEA: There was at times a confessional tone to the proceedings, as when the candidates were asked about things they've sought forgiveness for. Businessman Herman Cain spoke of how his commitment to his business career meant he didn't spend enough time with his family. He, too, choked up as he spoke.

HERMAN CAIN: I didn't believe that I was home enough when my kids were growing up.

LUNTZ: And what do you say to them about that now.

CAIN: Well, I got to stop doing this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUNTZ: I feel like Dr. Phil.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: Then it was Newt Gingrich's turn. He has been married three times. And has acknowledged extramarital affairs in the past. He mentioned none of that specifically, but he did offer this:

NEWT GINGRICH: I've been very, very fortunate and very blessed. Callista and I have a wonderful marriage. We're very close to our two daughters, Cathy and Jackie, and their husbands. And (unintelligible) I'm extremely close to Maggie and Robert who are my two grandchildren. But all of that has required a great deal of pain, some of which I have caused others, which I regret deeply.

GONYEA: Policy was also discussed. Same sex marriage and abortion were prominent. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann criticized the judicial system and the courts.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN REPUBLICAN, MINNESOTA: They're not the lawmakers. It's the Congress that are the lawmakers. And so we have to...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MINNESOTA: I will get behind legislation in the Congress and I will also get behind the Federal Marriage Amendment. I will do whatever it takes because the first and foremost unit of government in this nation is the family.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MINNESOTA: And the family is defined as one man, one woman. No other definition will do.

GONYEA: But on the question of whether states should be prevented from acting on their own to allow same sex marriage and abortion, Congressman Ron Paul was the only one to offer words of caution about going too far.

REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL REPUBLICAN, TEXAS: But I would prefer under our system of laws that all of these problems be taken care of in a constitutional manner, which I would defer to the states. And I think the reason we fight and fume over this is because we have too much government everywhere.

GONYEA: Apart from that, agreement dominated making it hard for any one of the six to consolidate the Christian conservative vote.

As for Mitt Romney, one audience member said it was like family member deciding to stay away from Thanksgiving dinner.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.