The Thanksgiving Family Forum on Saturday night wasn’t about finger-pointing, but it turned into a highly emotional event as three of the six Republican presidential candidates fought tears talking about their personal struggles before a crowd of 3,000 value voters at a church in Des Moines, Iowa.
Alongside discussions on policy matters, the forum gave a chance to the candidates vying for the GOP’s nomination for the 2012 presidential election to show what lies behind their respective positions on key issues.
“I will never forget walking out of that surgeon’s office after she had just told us stage four [cancer] …” former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain said, and then paused with tears visible in his eyes.
“Take your time,” advised forum moderator Frank Luntz. “It’s as bad as it gets,” Cain added, describing what it was like for him and his wife when they discovered he had colon cancer in 2006. “I will never forget; before my wife and I were about to get in the car I said, ‘I can do this…,’” he said, and paused again, according to the exchange transcribed by Des Moines Register.
“She said, ‘We…,’” Cain wanted to go on with the sharing but couldn’t finish the sentence. He covered his face with his hands, and the audience applauded to show empathy.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, sitting next to Cain, comforted him and fielded the next question.
Luntz, the nationally known pollster and Fox News regular, then asked Cain about regrets in his life, which may have alluded to the allegations of sexual harassment he faced in the 1990s. But Cain said he had many “little failures” rather than “one great big disaster.”
“One little failure in my mind was I didn’t believe that I was home enough when my kids were [growing up],” said Cain.
“What do you say about that now?” Luntz interjected. Cain paused yet again. “You gotta stop doing that!” he told then moderator teasingly. “That was the sacrifice I made to be able to climb those corporate ladders,” Cain said. “But my wife was the nucleus. I always meant to be home and spend more time with them but I couldn’t because of the demands of my business life.”
Asked a similar question, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum spoke about his disabled 3-year-old daughter, Bella. He said his regret was that he could not love her for the first five months so as to make it easier for him if she died, as she was not expected to live longer at the time.
“The doctor looked at [my wife] and said, ‘You have to learn to let go,’” Santorum said. “I decided that the best thing I could do was to treat her differently, to not love her, like I did, because it wouldn’t hurt as much if I lost her,” he added with an evident lump in his throat.
“I remember holding that finger, looking at her and realizing what I had done,” Santorum admitted. “I had been exactly what I had said that I’d fought against at the partial birth abortion. I had seen her as less a person. It does hurt to say that.”
He asked the audience to pray for Bella, who is alive today. “She’s not going well tonight, so please say a little prayer for her. But she’s hanging in there.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s emotional moment came when he alluded to his unfaithfulness in marriages past as he talked about a close friend’s son who had brain tumors. “All of that has required a great deal of pain, some of which I have caused others, which I regret deeply,” he was quoted as saying. “All of that has required going to God to seek reconciliation; also to seek God’s acceptance that I had to recognize how limited I was and how much I had to depend on him.”
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Rep. Ron Paul were also at the forum. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, both Mormons, were absent. Romney declined the invitation to attend the forum, while Huntsman was not invited because of his low poll numbers.
The forum was hosted by The Family Leader, an Iowa policy organization, and co-sponsored by Focus on the Family-affiliate CitizenLink and the National Organization for Marriage.