A half dozen Republican presidential candidates are scheduled to appear together late Saturday afternoon at a Des Moines church for what’s billed as a “Thanksgiving Family Forum.”
The Family Leader, a group that has been leading the campaign against gay marriage in Iowa, is sponsoring the forum. The candidates will sit together around a table for the two-hour event. Frank Luntz — a political consultant who specializes in “message creation and image management” — will moderate the discussion.
Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, says the goal is to get more than “talking point answers” from the candidates.
“A sample question that Frank Luntz gave to the candidates is: “You know, 14 months from now, you all hope to be swearing an oath as the next president of the United States and that oath ends with the words, “so help me God.” What does that phrase mean to you?'” Vander Plaats said during an interview with Radio Iowa. “So the questions are going to be a little bit deeper, a little bit more thought provoking and hopefully revealing who a candidate is and what their vision is versus what a candidate is against.”
Vander Plaats and The Family Leader’s board of directors will meet Monday to discuss endorsing one of the candidates.
“Should we endorse or do we remain neutral or do I get freed up as the president and CEO to make an individual endorsement versus a group endorsement?” Vander Plaats asks. “So we definitely hope this forum provides us a lot of insight.”
The six candidates who have agreed to participate are Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. Mitt Romney turned down the group’s invitation and Vander Plaats said Romney will not be receiving his endorsement or the backing of The Family Leader organization.
“He’s missing too many major events with conservatives,” Vander Plaats said. “And even if he were to get the nomination, he’s going to count on this base to go to work for him, so this base needs to be inspired and when you’re ‘dissing’ them at major events like this, it’s not a good sign for Governor Romney.”
Earlier this week Governor Branstad made similar statements, saying Romney is making a “big mistake” by not campaigning more often in Iowa.
“Romney is dropping in the polls and I think he thinks that he wants to keep down expectations, you know,” Branstad said during a forum in Des Moines sponsored by Politico. “Well, his expectations may be really bad if he doesn’t get a little more serious about it.”
Branstad, by the way, scheduled a campaign fundraiser Saturday night — starting a half hour before The Family Leader forum ends at 6 p.m. — and all six candidates have agreed to stop by.
Romney spent a day campaigning in eastern Iowa last week and he’s reportedly headed to central Iowa next week, although his campaign staff has not confirmed the trip to Radio Iowa. Romney did not sign the wide-ranging “Marriage Vow” document The Family Leader published this summer, saying some provisions were “undignified and inappropriate.”
The document denounced pornography and adultery. A section which argued African American children were better off during slavery than they are today was later retracted. Just two candidates — Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum — signed the pledge. Newt Gingrich didn’t sign “The Marriage Vow,” but Vander Plaats said Gingrich — who has admitted to affairs and has divorced twice — isn’t automatically disqualified from getting his endorsement or the backing of The Family Leader.
“At the heart of our faith is a thing called forgiveness,” Vander Plaats said. “…Has he asked for forgiveness? Has he demonstrated a level of maturity? Is he willing to move on? A lot of these attendees like Newt, they like his experience and they like his ability to debate and so if the focus can be on his vision for America, I think he’s going to do well. If the focus remains on his personal past, then he’s probably going to be in trouble.”
A new group called “Progress Iowa” suggests Gingrich may get the backing of Vander Plaats because Gingrich donated $200,000 to the campaign Vander Plaats led to target two Iowa Supreme Court justices who signed onto the opinion which legalized gay marriage in Iowa. Those justices were voted off the court in 2010.
Earlier this month, though, Vander Plaats was among a group of social conservatives who went to eastern Iowa to try to influence the outcome of a state senate race in Marion. They argued the Republican candidate would help advance the effort to ban gay marriage. That Republican candidate lost by 12 percentage points.