The GOP candidates competing against Donald Trump in Iowa are making efforts to appeal to social conservatives at an event that he did not attend.


Several of Donald Trump’s main competitors at a significant Iowa event for evangelical Christians refrained from directly criticizing him on topics such as abortion and other matters important to social conservatives, in an effort to gain support from his followers.

The Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual banquet is traditionally a marquee event on the Republican primary calendar. But the former president skipped it, leaving a mostly muted crowd of more than 1,000 pastors and activists to instead hear from several candidates running far behind Trump.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis reiterated his stance on abortion, aligning with Trump’s position that restrictions should be determined at the state level. On the other hand, former Vice President Mike Pence referred to Trump as his “former running mate” and expressed disagreement with his opposition to a nationwide ban on abortion.

Republican presidential candidate and former Vice President Mike Pence, right, shakes the hand of Faith & Freedom Coalition founder and chairman Ralph Reed before speaking at the organizations' fall banquet, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Bryon Houlgrave)
Republican presidential candidate and former Vice President Mike Pence, right, shakes the hand of Faith & Freedom Coalition founder and chairman Ralph Reed before speaking at the organizations’ fall banquet, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Bryon Houlgrave)
via Associated Press

While the audience was overwhelmingly anti-abortion, Pence’s push for a 15-week ban got only tepid applause, reflecting some national Republicans’ concerns that Democrats are winning on abortion rights issues after last year’s Supreme Court ruling overturning the Roe v. Wade decision.

DeSantis, who has struggled to solidify himself as the GOP primary’s No. 2 behind Trump, declined to say he’d back a federal abortion ban. Instead, he said, states have done more on the issue.

DeSantis stated that Congress has faced significant challenges in making a meaningful difference throughout the years.

That’s similar to Trump, who recently has refused to back a federal ban, arguing that the issue should be left up to the states. The former president also has also previously cautioned top Republicans from championing abortion positions that are outside the political mainstream.

Pence expressed his disagreement with Trump’s stance and advocated for all Republican presidential candidates to support a federal ban on abortion, setting the minimum threshold at 15 weeks into pregnancy.

Pence expressed his belief that this idea is timely and important. He emphasized the need to advocate for the rights of the unborn throughout the United States.

Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a regular critic of the ex-president, launched a verbal assault against Trump. He expressed his respect for another candidate who was absent at the event and then criticized Trump’s stance on abortion, particularly his claim of wanting to please both sides.

Hutchinson stated that he would not be favored by both sides, unlike Trump. He emphasized that this would be a battle for survival.

Unlike other high-profile events, no one in the audience booed that or any other comment Saturday. That might have been because Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, admonished the audience before things started: “Let’s conduct ourselves in a way that honors these candidates but honors our lord and savior Jesus Christ.”

Those criticizing Trump didn’t agree on everything. Hutchinson suggested that a House Republican push to open an impeachment inquiry against President Joe Biden might be premature given the facts that have been uncovered so far. Pence said he supported that effort.

The event featured many devout and well-connected social conservatives who can play a decisive role in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation Republican caucuses in January. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz used strong appeals to evangelical Republicans to win the GOP’s 2016 caucuses.

This time, however, Trump’s rivals face a much tougher task because he has built a large early GOP primary lead. The former president has also remained popular with evangelical Christians and social conservatives in Iowa and elsewhere who were delighted to see his three Supreme Court picks vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Saturday’s banquet is the last scheduled opportunity for a large group of Iowa evangelical conservatives have the chance to see the candidates side-by-side, meaning they won’t see Trump. He skipped similar events with crowds of thousands in Iowa in April and June.

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who has been single for a long time, was questioned about rumors regarding his unidentified girlfriend. During a recent event, he referred to her as a “wonderful Christian woman” and requested the audience to join him in prayer.

He jokingly expressed his gratitude to the Lord for finally blessing him with a girlfriend by saying, “I just say praise the living God.”

DeSantis was specifically questioned about his personal faith and strong Catholic convictions. He acknowledged that when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, he appreciated the numerous prayers they received, as it greatly uplifted her spirits. He attributed prayer as a significant factor in her successful recovery from cancer.

For many years, it has been common for successful candidates in the Iowa caucus to openly talk about their religious beliefs. This tradition includes George W. Bush, who gained attention in 1999 when he mentioned Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher because of the impact on his personal life.

Robin Star from Waukee, located west of Des Moines, was present at the church during DeSantis’ speech. She expressed her satisfaction with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, although she believes that Trump should not be solely credited for it. Despite her concerns about Trump’s ability to unite the Republican Party for the upcoming general election against Biden, Star stated that she would still vote for him if he becomes the Republican nominee.

Star expressed the urgency of winning, emphasizing the need for a victory.

Jerry Star, her spouse, expressed a stronger opinion, stating “I think it is necessary to have a change in leadership.”

Jerry Star, a former Air Force officer, expressed his strong support for the majority of Trump’s presidency. However, his stance changed on January 6, 2021, when a group of the ex-president’s followers stormed the U.S. Capitol.

“He performed exceptionally well during his four-year tenure, but he completely ruined everything on that particular day,” he stated. “It is now the right moment for someone else to take charge.”