Texas Gov. Rick Perry listens to the national anthem at the Faith and Freedom… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )
Reporting from Des Moines — Republican presidential candidates wooed evangelical voters Saturday, seeking the key voting bloc's backing by highlighting their faith and trying to chip away at the credibility of their rivals.
Businessman Herman Cain's recent surge in the race was evident — the other candidates turned on him repeatedly, particularly on the topic of abortion. Last week, Cain said that though he opposed abortion under any circumstances, such a decision should be made by the mother or the family and not the government. (He later said he misunderstood the question.)
Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota both ripped Cain's comments without mentioning him by name.
"It is a liberal canard to say I am personally pro-life but government should stay out of that decision," Perry said. "If that is your view, you are not pro-life, you are pro-having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too."
Cain sought to allay voters' concerns about the matter. He said that he believes abortion should be illegal and that as president he would work to block it.
"No abortions, no exceptions," he said.
Six members of the GOP field made their case at the Faith and Freedom Forum at the Iowa State Fairgrounds; the most prominent absentee was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Steve Scheffler, president of the group that planned the event, pledged that members would educate voters about the caucuses, knock on doors to reach out to like-minded Iowans and encourage pastors to be actively involved.
"We are going to be soldiers marching in the battle," he said.
Evangelical voters are a force in Iowa elections, and in 2008 they fueled former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's surprise victory in the GOP caucuses. But they have not coalesced behind a candidate so far, in part because there are so many options in the GOP field.
All of the candidates had something to prove Saturday, whether trying to strengthen sputtering candidacies or proving their ideological consistency.
The most emotional appeal came from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who described the birth of his son Gabriel. Santorum said he and his wife had been advised to abort him after a sonogram detected physical problems; ultimately he was born prematurely and lived for only two hours, Santorum told an audience that listened raptly.
Cain, in his remarks, talked about growing up in the segregated South and seeing signs on buses that "colored" people must sit in the back.
"But because of America's ability to change, I stand here today; I own the bus with my picture on the side," he said. He urged voters to be active.
"Stay informed, because stupid people are running America," he said. "We can win because there are more of us; we've just got to out-vote them."
Bachmann, whose sputtering campaign saw its entire New Hampshire staff quit Friday, criticized Cain for comments he made about trading Guantanamo Bay prisoners for hostages. (He also said he misunderstood that question.) And without mentioning his name, she went after Perry, knocking his support of in-state college tuition rates for illegal immigrants and his opposition to a border fence.
"This is our year, when we don't have to compromise. This is our year, when we don't settle," she said. "We need to look at the records of the candidates, look at what we've done and what we fought for. The last five years, I have been the tip of the spear on issue after issue."
Both Bachmann and Perry wove biblical tales into their comments and talked about their embrace of religion.
"It was only when I had nowhere else to turn that I turned to God," Perry said. "I discovered my own limitations, my own brokenness. I found the true source of hope and change, and that is a loving God who changes hearts of stone into hearts of flesh."
He noted that they were all imperfect.
"If any of you have watched my debate performance over the last three or four times, you know that I am far from perfect," he said to laughs.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul also participated in the forum. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., like Romney, did not take part.
Earlier in the day, the candidates campaigned in all corners of the state, greeting college football tailgaters, touring factories and holding town halls.
While headlining a local politician's fundraiser, Perry previewed some details of an economic plan he intends to release Tuesday. Perry said he would replace the tax code with a flat tax, end earmarks, enact a balanced budget amendment and reform entitlements.
Perry's announcement will be made in South Carolina, another state where evangelical voters hold significant sway.