With roughly four months until the Iowa caucuses, Republican presidential hopefuls spent Saturday courting the state’s conservative evangelical activists, an influential voting bloc in the Hawkeye State.
Nearly all the major GOP candidates spoke at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s fall banquet with one big exception – former President Donald Trump, who sits comfortably ahead in the polls.
The Des Moines dinner presented an opportunity for Republican candidates to address conservatives in Iowa, which will hold the first contest of the 2024 race on January 15, and to make an impression at an event where the former president wasn’t monopolizing the spotlight.
In Iowa, Trump has more than twice the support of his closest competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, among likely GOP caucusgoers, according to the most recent Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll. But slightly more than half of likely Republican caucusgoers say they could be persuaded to support a presidential candidate besides their current first choice.
Many of the candidates focused on abortion restrictions, a popular issue among conservative evangelical voters.
Asked about federal legislation on abortion, DeSantis continued not to engage on the topic of a national ban, instead pointing to new restrictions in states such as Iowa and Florida.
“I’ve been a pro-life governor. I’ll be a pro-life president,” DeSantis said. “Clearly, a state like Iowa has been able to move the ball with pro-life protections. Florida has been able to move the ball.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence reiterated his support for a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy as a minimum, saying, “It’s an idea whose time has come.” He said Trump and other GOP candidates want to relegate the abortion issue to the states, “but I won’t have it.”
By contrast, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who personally opposes abortion, said enacting a 15-week restriction would have “everybody running from” Republicans and said her stance that a federal ban is impracticable is the “hard truth.”
“I’m gonna fight on the side of life every chance I get, but I’m not going to demonize people in the process,” Haley said.
Many of the candidates already emphasize faith in their campaigns and prioritize evangelical voters, who they hope will help them deliver a win like conservative Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 Iowa caucus victory over Trump.
DeSantis on Thursday launched a “Faith and Family Coalition,” touting the endorsements of more than 70 faith leaders in Iowa and the other early voting states of New Hampshire and South Carolina. The Florida governor held a “God Over Government” rally in Des Moines on Saturday afternoon, ahead of his appearance at the Faith and Freedom Coalition dinner.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Pence have leaned into their Christian faith, attracting supporters who say they like how the two respectively are outspoken about their religious beliefs.
During a discussion with Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird, Scott, who is unmarried, was questioned about his relationship status in light of a recent Washington Post article highlighting his new relationship.
“She’s a lovely Christian girl. One of the things I love about the gospel of Jesus Christ is it always points us in the right direction,” Scott said.
Vivek Ramaswamy, who gained interest from voters following his performance at the first GOP presidential debate, has been speaking to voters about his Hindu faith.
At an event in New Hampshire last weekend, Ramaswamy said he would be “fine with that” if evangelicals decide that the nominee must be a Christian, adding, “my job is not to convince anybody out of it.”
He added that he’s found “all of us, Jewish, Hindu, evangelical Christian, Catholic, we’re not that different in wanting people in office who are forthright, who are honest.”
After his remarks Saturday, Ramaswamy announced a new endorsement – Iowa state Rep. Eddie Andrews, the sole Black Republican in the state House. Andrews told reporters that he’s backing Ramaswamy because of the “clarity” and “passion” in his message, and because “he addresses the issues that many of us are not addressing.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, Ryan Binkley, Larry Elder and Perry Johnson also spoke at the banquet.
Hutchinson hit at Trump for skipping the event, telling reporters that the former president has “absolutely has taken evangelical voters for granted,” and that Trump is “waffling on important issues that Iowans believe in,” including abortion restrictions.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been a vocal critic of Trump, skipped the event, choosing instead to focus on New Hampshire. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum also skipped the event to campaign in New Hampshire on Saturday night.
CNN’s Ali Main and Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.