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November 20th, 2011

Thanksgiving Family Forum Recap, Winners and Losers

The Family Leader’s long awaited presidential forum was one of the most interesting events of the GOP primary season. It provided a stark contrast from the televised debates and allowed Iowa caucus goers to hear detailed, substantive answers, instead of the usual 60-second soundbites.

Moderator Frank Luntz did an outstanding job as the moderator and the crowd definitely walked away from the event with a much better grasp on where each candidate stands. Six candidates participated. Mitt Romney declined an invitation.

The forum was clearly designed for social issues, which have received very little focus during the countless other debates. Family Leader CEO Bob Vander Plaats said he would not endorse a candidate until after this event. Every candidate on the stage would like his help. Here is a look at how each candidate fared, in alphabetical order, with winners and losers at the end:

Michele Bachmann: The Minnesota congresswoman got the event off to an odd start by pouring water for everyone else at the table. She provided a lot of substance to her answers and what she said resonated with many in the crowd. This was an event where Bachmann really needed to shine. I thought she did well, especially when discussing her Biblical worldview and the role faith plays in her life.

However, Bachmann did not do well enough to emerge as the clear winner of the event. She needs to snag an endorsement from Bob Vander Plaats’ organization to help her regain some momentum in the race. I’m not sure she secured that with this forum. We shall see.

Herman Cain: The Georgia businessman needed to clarify his abortion stance, since Bob Vander Plaats said he sounded just like John Kerry and the Democrats on the issue last month. Cain was given the opportunity to take a strong stand. He failed. When asked if he would pursue a federal law or constitutional amendment banning abortion, Cain said, “If it gets to my desk I will sign it.” That was a weak answer in front of 2,500 evangelicals. They want a president who will fight for pro-life legislation. Also, a president does not sign constitutional amendments. I wonder if Cain knows that. He was then asked if he would “push hard” for such a bill. Cain said it would be “one of the things” he would work on. Again, weak.

Cain’s answers were much shorter and less detailed than any other candidate’s. He got emotional on two occasions, talking about being diagnosed with cancer and not being home enough while his kids were growing up. The tears probably helped Cain more anything he actually said. He sounded OK in some spots, but not good enough to cover his abortion responses.

Newt Gingrich: It was another strong performance for the former House Speaker. He showed a command of the issues and drew huge applause several times. The crowd loved it when he ripped the Occupy protestors, saying they should be told to “go get a job right after you take a bath”. He brought up the need to pass a Personhood amendment to protect all life from conception and that was another crowd pleaser.

Gingrich used a historical analogy with almost every answer. I think he missed an opportunity to discuss his marital woes, though he did so indirectly. He talked about inflicting a lot of pain in his life and needed to make things right with God and those he hurt. This was a very forgiving crowd who wanted to hear the candidates open up. Overall though, Gingrich delivered again.

Ron Paul: The Texas congressman had some good moments and some pretty bad ones. He sounded good when talking about liberty and freedom. However, the longer the forum went, the worse Paul did. He really blew it when asked about failures in his life. He talked about not liking to watch himself on TV. Frank Luntz said, “So, no failures?” Paul talked about getting injured in high school hurting his athletic career. It was not a very good answer. Paul lost the audience with that one. He also argued against federal life and marriage amendments. That was not what this crowd wanted to hear. Ron Paul did not do very well, overall.

Rick Perry: It might be too late, but the Texas governor is really coming into his own as a candidate. This was another good performance for Perry. He displayed a great sense of humor and came across as very likeable.

Perry’s answers were strong, as well. He talked openly about his faith several times, including leaning on God when having to make decisions about “life and death”, referring to the death penalty in Texas. He implored pastors to talk about values from the pulpit. Perry came out strong for life and against gay marriage and talked about his record in Texas, which forbids gay couples from adopting. Perry probably helped his case at this event. It was one of his better moments so far in the campaign.

Rick Santorum: The former Pennsylvania senator needed a strong performance in this forum and he delivered one. Santorum scored with his answers on life, moral values, faith, and gay marriage. Basically, on all the core issues that the audience cared most about, Santorum gave solid answers.

Santorum provided the most powerful, and honest, moment of the debate when talking about his daughter Bella, who is a special needs child. Doctors did not give her much of a chance to live and Santorum tearfully admitted that he treated her differently because of that, so that it would not hurt as much if she died. It was a painful admission and showed a very human side to Santorum. He opened up to the audience and revealed a serious flaw. This is exactly what moderator Frank Luntz tried to get the others to do. Overall, this was a very good event for Rick Santorum.

Overall Winners: Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Frank Luntz and The Family Leader. I think Gingrich and Santorum helped their campaigns the most. Luntz did a terrific job as moderator and The Family Leader put on a terrific event.

Overall Losers: Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Herman Cain and CSPAN. Romney should have participated in this event. It would have helped him. Cain again showed he is weak on the abortion issue and Paul’s stances did not align with the crowd. CSPAN opted to televise the Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines, but not The Family Leader’s forum. That was a huge mistake and a great disservice to voters around the country.

Photo courtesy of Dave Davidson,

About the Author

Kevin Hall
Kevin Hall brings almost two decades of journalistic experience to TheIowaRepublican. Starting in college as a radio broadcaster, Hall eventually became a television anchor/reporter for stations in North Carolina, Missouri, and Iowa. During the 2007 caucus cycle, Hall changed careers and joined the political realm. He was the northwest Iowa field director for Fred Thompson's presidential campaign. Hall helped Terry Branstad return to the governor's office by organizing southwest Iowa for Branstad's 2010 campaign. Hall serves as a reporter/columnist for

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