Republican presidential candidates will be given an opportunity Saturday to sit down – “family style” – with Iowa evangelicals to discuss issues important to value voters. What is being touted as the “Thanksgiving Family Forum” is being 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.
“We now have the ability to reach about as many people over the Internet as we can through a televised broadcast,” CitizenLink Senior Director of Media Stuart Shepard told The Christian Post.
“People will be watching the event live on their computers, their iPads and their mobile phones,” he said. “Even five years ago, we couldn’t do this, but now so many people have a broadband Internet connection that we’re able to share it directly, on our own.”
So far, six of the presidential candidates have confirmed their attendance at the Des Moines event. The two holdouts – former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Governor and Ambassador to China under President Obama, Jon Huntsman – have yet to respond.
“I don’t think Romney should walk away from these caucus goers – it’s only a pickup for him,” event organizer Bob Vander Plaats told The Des Moines Register. “He and Ann, they’ve had a tremendous marriage. He’s got an outstanding family. In a lot of ways, he’s the picture of what the American family should look like.”
While Romney has shared frontrunner status with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann , and more recently, Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, he has struggled to attract more than a small slice of evangelical support. Huntsman, meanwhile, has rarely broken out of the low single digits in national polls. Possible reasons may be that many Christians are uncomfortable with tenants of the Mormon faith, or possibly Romney inconsistent stances on key issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
The question remains what exactly do evangelical voters want to hear from the presidential candidates.
“This forum will be geared toward asking candidates questions that are important to conservatives,” said Shepard. “The moderators will try and dig down into the candidates’ faith and find out what drives them, what motivates them to make decisions and what is the substance of their faith.”
When Shepard was asked his thoughts on why Romney and Huntsman had not responded, he expressed confusion on why neither would want to attend.
“We hope that Governors Romney and Huntsman will attend,” Shepard said. “They are invited and are welcome and will be treated with the same respect and courtesy we plan on extending to every candidate.”
CitizenLink’s Tom Minnery weighed in on the issue in a guest opinion piece in The Washington Post last week.
“Rather than simply getting the candidates to elucidate a tick-tock of issue positions, he’ll [moderate Frank Luntz] will be trying to get the underlying world view which will motivate a prospective president toward a particular decision on an issue,” wrote Minnery. “Rather than dwelling on whether Mormonism is Christian or not, we’ll concede the difference on opinion on that question and start from there.”
Frank Luntz, the nationally known pollster and Fox News regular, will moderate the forum. Luntz, known for his uncanny ability to get voters to open up, will not only be asking questions of the candidates, but at the conclusion of the forum he’ll lead a focus group with 25 Iowa moms, gauging their response to the candidates and discussing the issues that motivate and concern conservative “soccer moms.”
In an interview with The Des Moines Register, Luntz gave an example of a question he may ask. For example: “In 14 months, on Jan. 20, 2013, each of you hopes to take the oath of office. What do the words ‘so help me God’ mean to you?”
None of the major television networks are scheduled to broadcast the two-hour discussion, but CitizenLink will provide a live webcast so that voters nationwide can watch the candidates talk about pro-family issues.
“It’s a mystery why the networks aren’t covering this forum,” said Shepard.
Nevertheless, the forum will be shot with four cameras and the satellite feed will be made available to any network or station at no charge. “We hope they’ll take advantage of the opportunity to let the nation see how the candidates are going to respond to a faith-based discussion,” Shepard added.