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Iowa forum heavy on social issues as Perry tweaks Cain on abortion

DES MOINES, Iowa – In a parade of speeches heavy on social issues and punctuated by a notable barb against Herman Cain on abortion policy, six Republican candidates made their presidential pitches to an audience of influential Iowa conservatives Saturday.

All but two of the major White House contenders -  Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman were absent -- appeared at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual fall forum, attended by more than a thousand Republicans in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

Without mentioning the pizza magnate by name, Gov. Rick Perry used his remarks to ding the recently ascendent Herman Cain for a remark suggesting Cain supports a hands-off attitude towards government curtailing of abortion rights.

"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, who spoke before Perry, only briefly mentioned abortion in his opening remarks, declaring unequivocally that life is a fundamental right: "No abortions, no exceptions."

The field's only black Republican candidate also recalled growing up in Atlanta riding on segregated buses, but added to thunderous applause that “because of America's ability to change, I stand here today and I own the bus with my picture on the side."

Michele Bachmann also spoke at length about abortion as well as her personal relationship with faith.  “I believe the government must intervene and I stand for a constitutional amendment to protect life from conception to natural death,” she said.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich received one of the most enthusiastic responses of the evening, repeating his oft-used call for Lincoln-Douglass style presidential debates and lambasting "activist" judges who have ruled in favor of abortion rights.

Libertarian champion Ron Paul began to speak after Gingrich and some in the crowd departed.  The Texas congressman recited biblical references and told the crowd the Bible is filled with “dozens of quotations… telling us to have honest weights and honest measures.”

During the question and answer session, a moderator asked him what would he do to prevent “abortion on demand.” Paul responded, “As an OB doctor, I know when life begins. If I do harm to a fetus, I can be sued!”

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who spoke last, described the family as the building block of recovery from the nation's fiscal woes. "If we don’t have strong families in America, we will not have a strong economy in this country," he said.

Santorum related the emotional story of the death of his newborn son and his struggle with faith afterwards, earning pin-drop silence from a supportive audience. "You want to know why I'm pro-life? Because God showed me if you're faithful, he will be faithful," he said.

Perry, Gingrich, Paul, and Santorum all spent time greeting voters at the Iowa State Fairgrounds before or after their remarks; Bachmann arrived late and Cain declined to spend much time with voters as he was ushered in and out of the room.

Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition President Steve Scheffler told NBC News before the event that the heavy focus on faith and family issues demonstrated social conservatives' eagerness to replace the current administration.

“It is indicative of the fact that this pro-family constituency is engaged and they want to stop the socialist policies of the Obama Administration,” he said. “They are ready to nominate someone who is going to carry the banner and win the election next fall.”

Despite the influence an endorsement from the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition would have, Scheffler said the organization would not choose a candidate. “We are just going to keep their feet to the fire,” he said.