Herman Cain, Rick Santorum Tear Up at Iowa Presidential Forum

Nov 19, 2011 7:27pm
ap Republicans Iowa jt 111119 wblog Herman Cain, Rick Santorum Tear Up at Iowa Presidential Forum

(Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo)

ABC News’ Michael Falcone, Amy Walter and Arlette Saenz report:

DES MOINES, Iowa — A gathering of religious conservatives in Iowa Saturday night turned into one of the most emotional moments of the 2012 primary season when two presidential candidates — Herman Cain and Rick Santorum — both fought back tears while telling personal stories about the most challenging moments in their lives.

Cain, whose wife, Gloria, was in the audience, spoke about being diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in 2006, stopping several times during his re-telling of the story to compose himself.

“I can do this,” Cain said he told his wife moments after getting the cancer diagnosis from his doctor. “She said — ‘we.’”

Fellow candidate Rick Perry, who was seated next to Cain at the forum, which is sponsored by the Christian conservative organization The Family Leader, reached over and touched Cain on the shoulder, consoling him.

Santorum spoke about his three-year-old daughter Bella’s diagnosis with Trisomy 18, a disorder that kills roughly 90 percent of children before or during birth. He shared his struggle dealing with the illness, acknowledging that he thought if he did not love her, it wouldn’t hurt him if she died.

Bella is still alive, but Santorum spoke of a particularly trying time when he thought he was about to lose her: “I prayed that moment, please, please let her live,” Santorum said.  “I’ll do everything to commit to her and not just her, but to every child like her.”

Michele Bachmann and Perry both reached out to comfort the former Pennsylvania senator.

Six candidates, including Cain, Perry, Ron Paul, Bachmann, Santorum and Newt Gingrich, used the venue to speak more expansively than ever before about their personal faith journey.

“In every person’s heart, in every person’s soul, there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ,” Perry told the audience.

Bachmann also told a touching story about her parents’ divorce, recalling her mother’s words: “It’s hard now, but, it’s going to be OK.” She spoke of her family’s financial woes after her parents’ split up, saying “my mom put all our pretty dishes” on “card tables” to sell them at a yard sale.

Gingrich also shed a tear while speaking about a disabled child he knows. The former House Speaker also opened up about a time in his life when he felt “truly hollow.”

But emotion also gave way to politics. The candidates took the opportunity to attack “Obamacare,” Washington elites, the liberal establishment and Occupy Wall Street protesters. And, all tried to fit in their own campaign talking points. Perry touted the 10th Amendment, Paul defended the importance of the Constitution and Bachmann promised to bring back $2 a gallon gasoline.

The candidates were seated around a large wooden table adorned with pumpkins at the event, billed as the Thanksgiving Family Forum. The two-hour long session, which did not include Mitt Romney who was campaigning in New Hampshire tonight, was moderated by Republican pollster Frank Luntz.

Before the candidates took the stage, prominent Iowa social conservative and political figure Bob Vander Plaats, who heads the Family Leader, predicted that “the next president of the United States will present to you tonight.”

While most people we talked to after the forum said they thought it was a mistake for Romney to skip the forum, at least one Iowa conservative voter said it was a smart move. And, he didn’t mean it as a compliment.

“Best thing for Romney is that he didn’t have to answer these questions,” said Tom Nichols of Klemme, Iowa,” because if he did, he’d have looked bad.”

The forum was held at the First Federated Church in Des Moines roughly a month and a half before Iowans will gather for the presidential caucuses on Jan. 3.

ABC News’ Shushannah Walshe and Elicia Dover contributed reporting from Des Moines.

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