Rick Perry obliquely critiques his opponents' views on abortion

At the Iowa Faith and Freedom dinner yesterday, Rick Perry sounded exceptionally strong on social issues, emphasizing his own committed and clearly spoken position on abortion while obliquely critiquing Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, both of whose pro-life credentials remain somewhat questionable:

[Cain’s] comments to CNN that put his position against abortion in doubt made him a target on the stage. Texas Gov. Rick Perry took a swipe at him, although he did not refer directly to the interview, in which Cain said that families should be able to abort a pregnancy in instances of incest and rape.

“It is a liberal canard to say, ‘I am personally pro-life, but government should stay out of that decision,’ ” Perry said. “That is not pro-life. That is pro-having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too.” …

“Being pro-life is not a matter of campaign convenience. It is a core conviction,” Perry said, drawing a contrast not only with Cain but also with Romney, who says he opposes abortion rights but who had supported them earlier in his political career.

“When it comes to faith, it is the core of who I am. It is an essential act as much as breathing is an essential act,” Perry said. “I found the true source of hope and change, and that is a loving God who changes hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.”

Incidentally, that last jab at Obama happens to be my very favorite.

Romney wasn’t even at the dinner to defend himself, but Cain took the event as an opportunity to clarify his views on the touchy topic yet again. He reaffirmed his support for life, saying he thinks abortion should be illegal throughout the country and promising not to approve any government funding for abortion. Cain’s clarifications have been at least as confusing as the original interviews he gave on the subject — but, overall, it does, at least, appear that he seeks to err on the side of life.

Nevertheless, the headlines about this event will focus on Perry for a reason. The Texas governor typically shines in a setting like the Faith and Freedom Dinner, and, from what I can gather, he was at his best again last night. For all that the guy can’t debate, he can hold captive an audience when he speaks sincerely on a subject about which he cares deeply — and when the crowd is exceptionally friendly. That sounds deceptively easy — but it’s a skill no less than any elocutionary ability. It’s reassuring, at least, to remember this Perry, the Perry of confidence and conviction.

In 2008, Perry piqued pro-lifers with his endorsement of Rudy Giuliani for president. Various other decisions he’s made could also be construed as less-than-perfectly pro-life. But, by and large, he has enormous credibility on the issue. Pro-life leaders in his state love him, for example.

“This issue really is dear to his heart, he understands it and he has always made it a priority,” one said. “He’s not necessarily going to put it in every speech because he knows he’s got to get elected, but … he’s not going to run from it, because it’s just who he is.”

Last night illustrates that, when he is able to put a little of “who he is” into a speech, he easily overshadows his competitors. Would that he could bring that self to debates …