Discuss as:

Tears and some confessions from GOP candidates at Iowa forum

Charlie Neibergall/AP

Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during the Thanksgiving Family Forum sponsored by The Family Leader as former CEO of Godfathers Pizza Herman Cain looks on Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa.

By NBC's Carrie Dann, Alex Moe, Andrew Rafferty and James Novogrod

DES MOINES, Iowa -- At an emotional two-hour forum focused as much on the candidate's personal and spiritual lives as on their policies, six Republican candidates spoke at length Saturday about their faith but skirted direct discussion of misconduct by either twice-divorced Newt Gingrich or Herman Cain, who has faced allegations of sexual harassment.

During the Des Moines forum sponsored by the Family Leader group and moderated by pollster Frank Luntz, Gingrich disclosed a time in the 1990s when he felt that he was "failing personally," even turning to the Alcoholics Anonymous handbook because he felt "truly hollow."

"I wasn't drinking but I had precisely the symptoms of somebody who was collapsing under this weight," he said after Luntz directed candidates to "bare your soul."

The former House speaker, who has previously disclosed that he was engaging in an extramarital affair with his current wife while prosecuting the Clinton impeachment, acknowledged Saturday that his struggles "required a great deal of pain."

"I've been very blessed. Callista and I have a wonderful marriage," he said, going on to describe his closeness to his children. "But all of that has required a great deal of pain, some of which I have caused others, which I regret deeply. All of which required having to go to God to seek both reconciliation but also to seek God's acceptance that I had to recognize how limited I was and how much I had to depend on Him."

Earlier in the forum, Gingrich won the biggest laugh of the night for telling Occupy Wall Street protesters to "go get a job right after you take a bath."

In a rare moment, Cain, who typically sticks to displays of humor and defiance on the campaign trail, choked up when talking about his wife, Gloria, and the struggle he faced with cancer.

When Cain received his diagnosis, he said, he told his wife "I can do this." She replied "WE can do this," he said of his wife of 42 years, who accompanied her husband to the forum for her first campaign appearance in Iowa this weekend.

Cain later struggled past tears in describing one consequence of his business success. "I didn't believe that I was home enough when my kids were growing up," he said.

The Atlanta businessman made no mention of at least four women who have accused him of sexual impropriety. He said Saturday that he believes he has experienced a "series of little failures rather than one great big disaster."

Also shedding tears Saturday was Rick Santorum, who delivered an emotional recounting of his disabled daughter's struggles for life.  "I had seen her as less of a person because of her disability," the former Pennsylvania senator confessed when describing one moment when his daughter's life was in danger.

Rick Perry, telling a familiar story about the academic failures that prevented him from achieving his dream of becoming a veterinarian, smiled broadly when delivering a line that could perhaps also apply to the rocky start of his once soaring campaign. 

"If you want to see God laugh, tell him your plans," Perry said.

The Texas governor related details of his humble biography, saying that his presence on the stage after growing up in near-poverty was "a stunning story of America." He discussed, as he did at a speech at Liberty University in September, a period of time when he felt "lost" and "too busy for God" before turning to Christ at age 27.

The unusual format -- with the six candidates seated around a table topped with Thanksgiving accoutrements -- allowed each candidate to offer lengthy responses to questions about gay marriage, abortion, morality, and the role of faith in public life.

While largely focused on the candidate's philosophical views, the candidates also discussed their view of the federal government through the prism of morality. 

"The states have a right to be wrong," Rep. Ron Paul alleged, dovetailing on a back-and-forth he had with Gingrich about the meaning of "liberty." "The Constitution is a restriction on the federal government, not a restriction on the states."

Rep. Michele Bachmann spoke about her views of the spiritual nature of the oath of office, relating a story disputed by some historians that George Washington added the words "so help me God" and kissed the Bible upon delivering them. (The Bachmann campaign pushed back via Twitter on questions about the anecdote's veracity, citing author David McCullough.)

Bachmann also separately attacked Gingrich on his abortion record.

Republican frontrunner Gov. Mitt Romney, along with longshot Gov. John Huntsman, was notably absent from the Iowa forum, choosing instead to conduct a fiery town hall in New Hampshire. While the other candidates declined to take shots at the absent former Massachusetts governor, moderator Frank Luntz did take a dig at Romney, noting that he was not present to respond to critiques of the individual mandate for health care, an idea included in the plan he signed into law in 2006.

Romney’s absence was also noted by event organizer Bob Vander Plaats, who told reporters after the forum, “Romney was the only one who stiffed us.”

“I think that’s gone with his persona, in how he’s treating Iowa, which happens to be a swing state,” Vander Plaats added. “And he wants to win the presidency -- which tells me he lacks judgment.”