Evangelical activists, Iowa's most potent conservative voting bloc, are sharply divided barely 10 weeks away from the state's leadoff presidential caucuses, and are weighing a number of GOP hopefuls competing hard to emerge as the more conservative alternative to early front-runner Mitt Romney.
A half-dozen GOP contenders sought Saturday to sharpen their Christian conservative credentials, and at times allay doubts, in an effort to gain any edge with this influential group before the state's Jan. 3 caucuses.
Businessman Herman Cain sought to clarify his position on abortion to about 1,000 of Iowa's most devout social conservatives, after suggesting this week the issue was a matter of choice.
"I believe abortion should be clearly stated as illegal across this country," Cain said during the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition's presidential forum.
Cain has risen sharply in the polls recently, stirring the interest of tea party activists and Republicans drawn to the former Godfather's Pizza CEO's business background and outsider status.
But he has also drawn new scrutiny, and came under attack by some of his fellow Republican candidates after comments in a CNN interview this week.
"What I'm saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make," Cain told CNN host Piers Morgan.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry first took a veiled jab at Romney, who had supported abortion rights but declared his opposition during his term as Massachusetts governor as he was weighing a presidential bid.
"Pro-life is not a matter of campaign convenience," said Perry, who has stepped up his attacks on Romney's conservative profile.
But Perry also noted "It is a liberal canard to say I am personally pro-life but government should stay out of that decision," an indirect shot at Cain.
Cain said Perry's comments were aimed at falsely painting him as an abortion-rights supporter.
"That is just an attempt to try to discredit me," Cain said later. "I am pro-life from conception. No abortions, no exceptions."
Evangelical conservatives have yet to rally around any single candidate aggressively courting them, seeking the kind of lift that carried former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to victory in the leadoff caucuses in 2008.
"I don't see anyone galvanizing people like they did for Mike Huckabee," said Steve Scheffler, president of the event's sponsor and a leading social conservative activist in Iowa. "And I'd be lying if I told you that can change in one event."
Activists attending the coalition's forum at the Iowa State Fairgrounds weighed pitches from three candidates who have made the most aggressive appeals so far _ including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Rep. Michele Bachmann and Perry as well as Cain, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Bachmann, who won the Iowa GOP straw poll in August with help from Iowa's politically active network of evangelical pastors, proclaimed her support for a constitutional amendment making abortion illegal.
"I believe that the government must intervene and I stand for a federal constitutional amendment to protect life from conception until natural death," Bachmann told the audience, prompting cheers.
Santorum, who had been a leading abortion opponent in Congress, criticized Cain in a press release after his CNN interview, but did not attack him directly Saturday.
"I hear a lot of theory up here," Santorum said referring to his rivals' records compared to his own in Congress. "That's practice."
Candidates campaigned across Iowa Saturday, convening in Des Moines for the event, which was seen as a chance to leave a mark on this constituency.
But the forum didn't draw Romney, who has led national GOP polls all year and was in New Hampshire on Saturday. Despite an aggressive effort by the event's planners, he declined an invitation, in part because he is well-known in Iowa from his 2008 White House run and is skipping multicandidate gatherings in the state.
Romney has had a touchy relationship with evangelical conservatives, many of whom are leery of Romney's Mormon faith and his changed positions on social issues such as gay and abortion rights.
He has attended national meetings of conservatives, including the Values Voter Summit in Washington this month, but is emphasizing economic, rather than social issues.
That left the stage Saturday to candidates targeting voters who made up roughly half of GOP caucusgoers in 2008, according to exit polls.
However, influential pastors say their network of politically active clergy is divided. Likewise, Christian home-school activists, a well-networked group that worked behind the scenes for Huckabee, apparently have no preferred candidate.
Perry gained attention for a national day of prayer he hosted in Houston in August. But some of his luster with evangelical voters has faded in light of his 2007 executive order requiring school-age girls be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cancer.
Santorum, an anti-abortion leader while in the Senate, has impressed social conservative leaders in Iowa, but trails Perry and Bachmann in fundraising.
Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition: http://ffciowa.com