Part of Herman Cain's appeal to GOP presidential primary voters was that he seemed to have more street cred with social conservatives than the putative front runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Doubts about Romney have helped fuel Cain's recent rise in the polls, putting him in a virtual dead-heat with Romney.
But in an interview Wednesday night with CNN's Piers Morgan, Cain raised some new questions about his stance on social issues. When Morgan asked the former Godfather's Pizza CEO about his beliefs on abortion and contraception, Cain said he believes life begins at conception and that he supports "abortion under no circumstances." But, according to a CNN transcript, Cain drew a sharp line between his personal beliefs and the role government should play:
No, it comes down to it's not the government's role or anybody else's role to make that decision. Secondly, if you look at the statistical incidents, you're not talking about that big a number. So what I'm saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make.
Not me as president, not some politician, not a bureaucrat. It gets down to that family. And whatever they decide, they decide. I shouldn't have to tell them what decision to make for such a sensitive issue.
When Morgan pressed him, saying he couldn't hide behind being "the pizza guy," and that, as president, his views would become "a directive to the nation," Cain reiterated his government-hands-off-abortion stance:
No they don't. I can have an opinion on an issue without it being a directive on the nation. The government shouldn't be trying to tell people everything to do, especially when it comes to social decisions that they need to make.
Campaigning in New Hampshire on Thursday, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum attacked Cain for misleading conservative voters. "It's basically the position that just about every pro-choice politician has in America," Santorum told The Associated Press. "I don't know too many pro-choice politicians who are for abortion, who want more abortions ... but they say the decision is a choice the government shouldn't be involved in."
In his interview with Morgan, Cain also weighed in on homosexuality, saying he believed it was "a sin" and that it was a "choice" that gay people make. He continued:
That being said, I respect their right to make that choice. You don't see me bashing them or anything like that. I respect their right to make that choice. I don't have to agree with it. That's all I'm saying.
Cain had also raised doubts about his stance on gay marriage on Meet The Press last Sunday. He said then that while he opposes same-sex marriage, he would not seek a constitutional ban on it — another position that puts him at odds with social conservatives in his party.
Cain tried to end the controversy Thursday with a tweet: "I'm 100% pro-life. End of story."
But he may find out it's not so easy to close that chapter this weekend, when he travels to Des Moines to attend the fall banquet of the Faith and Freedom Coalition where he'll take questions from Iowa Republicans.
Update at 8:20 p.m. ET. Cain Clarifies Further
Cain released a statement Thursday saying he believed he was asked on CNN whether he, "as president, would simply 'order' people to not seek an abortion."
"My answer was focused on the role of the president. The president has no constitutional authority to order any such action by anyone," his statement said.
He said as president he would do "everything that a president can do, consistent with his constitutional role, to advance the culture of life."