DES MOINES, Iowa -- Six Republican presidential contenders dove deep into how their faith influences their public life during a free-flowing forum before a large, influential audience of social conservatives in early voting Iowa on Saturday.
During an event sponsored by an Iowa Christian group, the hopefuls 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 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 he has denied. But he acknowledged not being home enough during his career's meteoric rise to the top of a national restaurant chain.
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.
"I had decided that the best thing I could do was to treat her differently and not love her the way I did because it wouldn't hurt as much if I'd lost her," Santorum told an audience of 3,200 in a large, evangelical Des Moines church.
The event comes as evangelical conservatives, a powerful force in Iowa's caucuses, still have yet to rally around a more conservative alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has not courted this segment of the voting bloc aggressively in his second bid for the GOP nomination.
The event, a sharp departure from the 10 GOP 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 Thanksgiving dinner scene.
Notably absent was Romney, a leader in most national and Iowa polls this year but who has not campaigned vigorously for the social conservative vote.
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.
Bachmann described the pain and uncertainty of her parents' divorce when she was an adolescent but held back somewhat when asked what prompted her Christian awakening at 16.
"It is amazing to me how God uses those challenges to shape your life," Bachmann said of the divorce, noting how it influenced her decision to foster more than 20 children along with her five biological ones.
Paul and Perry did not offer revealing chapters from their lives. Paul described his early life during the Depression in Pennsylvania and Perry, his upbringing in rural west Texas.
Perry also described feeling lost upon his discharge from the Air Force at 27. "I couldn't understand what it was that was missing out of my life," he said, describing the moment he turned to Christianity. "In every person's heart and soul, there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ."