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Republican 2012 Candidates Court Iowa Voters at Religious Forum

Nov. 19, 2011: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during the Thanksgiving Family Forum, as former CEO of Godfather's Pizza Herman Cain looks on, in Des Moines, Iowa.AP

Six Republican candidates in the race to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012 dove deep into how their religious faith influences their public life, during a forum before a large, influential audience of social conservatives Saturday.

The event comes as evangelical conservatives, a powerful force in Iowa's caucuses -- the first major electoral event of the nominating process -- and they still have yet to rally around a more conservative alternative to presumed front-runner Mitt Romney.

The former Massachusetts governor, who is a Mormon, has not courted this segment of the voting bloc aggressively in his second bid for the Republican nomination.

At an event sponsored by an Iowa Christian group, the candidates tried at times to gain a political edge with potent Iowa conservatives. But some of the discussion turned uncharacteristically personal, with the would-be presidents tearfully revealing formative chapters that shaped their faith.

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose recent rise has renewed scrutiny of his two divorces, admitted taking the advice of a recovering alcoholic to soothe the demons he had treated for years with his own national ambition.

Businessman Herman Cain, accused of sexually harassing four subordinates more than a decade ago, didn't address the accusations which he has denied vigorously. But he acknowledged not being home enough during his career's meteoric rise to the top of a national restaurant chain.

And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has campaigned aggressively for the support of evangelical conservatives in Iowa, tearfully confessed to have resisted loving his severely disabled daughter.

The event, a sharp departure from the 10 Republican debates that have already been held in the 2012 campaign, also included Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Instead of the rapid questions and timed answers of the televised debates, Saturday's forum was held around a large dining table on a stage with fall themed decorations, aimed at resembling a family dinner.

Also missing was former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is focusing his early-state campaign on New Hampshire, where his moderate positions on gay rights are not as glaring a liability.

Santorum was the most aggressive in trying to establish political edge during the event, arguing that the president must be a cultural warrior pushing for social change that reflects the nation's Judeo-Christian heritage.

A recent Des Moines Register poll showed 37 percent of likely Republican caucus participants described themselves as born-again Christians. They are an influential bloc, and rallied to oppose the retention of the three Iowa Supreme Court justices on the ballot a year ago after the court's unanimous 2009 decision to nullify the state's statutory ban on gay marriage.

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