From left to right: Former Vice President Mike Pence, former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
CNN  — 

Republican presidential candidates took turns Friday pitching themselves to a ballroom full of religious conservatives in Washington as the most viable alternative to front-runner Donald Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination.

The specter of the former president loomed large over the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Policy Conference, a summit that marks the first time the biggest names in the GOP race are appearing on the same stage as the summer campaign season kicks into gear. Trump is slated to speak Saturday, which will mark his first in-person appearance at a large GOP gathering of presidential hopefuls since announcing his White House bid.

The topic of abortion was a through-line at the conference Friday, which coincided with the eve of the first anniversary of the US Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. Abortion has been a politically fraught issue for Republicans, and some GOP 2024 candidates are struggling to balance appealing to the hard-line GOP base without alienating more moderate voters needed to win a general election.

Though several GOP candidates typically skate around the issue, including what kind of federal legislation they would support, one candidate has staked out a clear position on abortion and kicked off the conference with a call to action for his GOP 2024 rivals to do the same.

“Every Republican candidate for president should support a ban on abortions before 15 weeks as a minimum nationwide standard,” former Vice President Mike Pence told the audience, largely made up of conservative evangelical voters.

Pence appeared to take a shot at Trump, who, like other GOP hopefuls, has wrestled with how to navigate the politics of abortion.

The former vice president told the audience that some speakers would say “that the Supreme Court returned to the issue of abortion only to the states and nothing should be done at the federal level.”

“Others will say that continuing the fight to life could produce state legislation is too harsh. Some have even gone on to blame the overturning of Roe v. Wade for election losses,” Pence added.

Trump’s campaign softened its stance that abortion should be decided at the state level after receiving backlash from the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. And after the GOP had a worse-than-expected showing in the 2022 midterm elections, Trump said the “abortion issue” had been poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those who insisted on no exceptions in the case or rape, incest or life of the mother, which, he said, “lost large numbers of voters.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, notably, did not make abortion a main focus of his remarks and only made a quick reference to his state’s six-week abortion ban he signed into law earlier this year. (The law has yet to go into effect.)

He spent more time during his roughly 35-minute speech leaning into cultural fights and digging in on his ongoing fight with Disney, decrying transgender athletes competing in women’s sports, touting his opposition to the teaching of gender ideology in public schools and propping up Florida as what he described as a “citadel of freedom,” particularly during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

With the GOP field somewhat solidified, Trump remains firmly the favorite for the nomination – a fact that is apparent not only in recent polls but in the conference’s programming itself. The former president will serve as the keynote speaker for the event’s closing gala on Saturday.

Trump allies, too, are among the conference’s speakers. Last year’s losing Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and conservative commentators Nick Adams and Judge Jeanine Pirro are scheduled to speak Saturday. Florida Rep. Byron Donalds and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke Friday. The Trump-heavy lineup underscores the challenges for other candidates to break out in a party still dominated by the former president.

“Donald Trump is arguably the strongest front-runner and in the strongest position overall of anyone in my career,” said Ralph Reed, the founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

But Reed added that Trump’s competition has a strong case to make, too, and there are paths for many of them to secure the nomination. Reed singled out DeSantis as an especially well-funded candidate who appears to pose a serious threat to the former president.

A new CNN poll conducted by SSRS in the wake of his indictment and arrest on federal charges showed Trump remained the front-runner – 47% of Republicans and Republican-leaning registered voters say Trump is their first choice for the party’s nomination. That’s down from 53% in May. His support appears to be softening amid his legal troubles, with a greater share of Republicans now saying they will not support him under any circumstances. DeSantis’ support has held steady at 26% and no other candidate in the growing field tops double digits.

“For the candidates that are not as high in the polls, this is an opportunity and an important moment for them to make their case,” Reed said. “If you’re not Donald Trump, it’s a very short calendar where you have to win somewhere and you have to do it quickly. If someone can win one of those first three states, and especially Iowa or New Hampshire, this race will change overnight. I think that’s part of why they’re all here.”

A contrast with Trump

In addition to Pence and DeSantis, Friday’s speakers included entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Radio show host Larry Elder and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will address the conference on Saturday.

Christie drew boos from the crowd when he criticized Trump on Friday.

“I’m running because he’s let us down,” the former New Jersey governor said. “He has let us down because he’s unwilling, he’s unwilling to take responsibility for any of the mistakes that were made. Any of the faults that he has and any of the things that he’s done and that is not leadership everybody. That is a failure of leadership.”

When several people in the crowd started loudly booing, Christie said, “You can boo all you want.”

Christie told CNN’s Dana Bash after his speech that he would continue speaking out against Trump on the campaign trail, saying the former president was “not a man of character, and they know it.”

“There were a lot of people in that audience who were standing and cheering when I left. And there were some that were booing. But no one left wondering what I think,” Christie said.

Christie has been sharply critical of the former president, whom he endorsed in the 2016 primary after dropping out of the presidential race and continued to advise ahead of the 2020 election. As other GOP hopefuls shy away from attacking Trump directly, hoping to avoid potentially alienating his supporters, Christie has taken direct aim at the former president and kicked off his 2024 candidacy lambasting Trump.

Instead of drawing direct contrasts with Trump, Scott spent much of his speech attacking the Biden administration, accusing it of “weaponizing” the Justice Department against the president’s political opponents. 

“In this radical-left Biden administration, they weaponize the Department of Justice against their political enemies. That is wrong. We deserve better in the United States of America,” Scott said.

Scott didn’t directly reference the federal charges against Trump, but the senator’s remarks came less than two weeks after Trump pleaded not guilty in a Miami courtroom to federal charges related to his alleged mishandling of classified documents after leaving office. Trump continues to claim the DOJ has been “weaponized” against him. 

The trail heats up

Republican voters are increasingly getting opportunities to size up the GOP field and evaluate them in the same setting. Next weekend, Trump, DeSantis, Haley, Ramaswamy and Hutchinson will address a summit in Philadelphia hosted by Moms For Liberty, a relatively new but increasingly influential group of conservative women focused largely on K-12 education issues.

The Road to Majority conference is taking place just two months before the first scheduled Republican presidential debate on August 23 in Milwaukee. Trump on Tuesday repeated his suggestion that he may not participate.

“Why would I let these people take shots at me?” he told Fox News.

However, Trump’s appearance on Saturday in DC marks a change in approach from similar Republican gatherings. To date, when Trump has participated, it has been via video message, just as he did at Faith and Freedom’s Iowa event earlier this year. Trump also skipped Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s annual “Roast and Ride” earlier this month, which drew the rest of the field that had entered at the time.

Reed encouraged Trump to spend more time talking to voters and less time harping on his legal troubles and past elections.

“He has a tremendous story to tell, and it’s the reason he’s doing so well among these voters now,” Reed said. “But I think it’s important for him to talk about what a second term agenda looks like.”

This story has been updated with additional details.

CNN’s Omar Jimenez, Alayna Treene and Kristen Holmes contributed to this report.