The GOP competitors of Donald Trump make efforts to appeal to social conservatives in Iowa during an event that he chose not to attend.


Several of Donald Trump’s main competitors at a significant event for evangelical Christians in Iowa refrained from directly criticizing him on topics such as abortion and other matters important to social conservatives, in an attempt 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 former President Trump in advocating for restrictions to be determined at the state level. In contrast, former Vice President Mike Pence distanced himself from Trump, acknowledging him as his “former running mate” and expressing 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

Although the majority of the audience expressed opposition to abortion, Pence’s proposal for a 15-week ban received only lukewarm applause. This response indicates that some Republicans nationwide are worried about the Democrats’ success in advocating for abortion rights, particularly following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling last year.

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 expressed 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 and advocated for all Republican presidential candidates to support a federal ban on abortion, with a minimum threshold of 15 weeks into pregnancy.

Pence expressed his belief that this idea has become relevant and important. He emphasized the importance of advocating for the rights of the unborn throughout the entire United States.

Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a regular critic of the former president, launched a verbal assault against Trump. He expressed his respect for another candidate who was absent at the event, but criticized Trump for his statement about wanting to please both sides regarding abortion.

Hutchinson stated that he will not be favored by both sides, unlike Trump. He emphasized that this will 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 regarding rumors about his unidentified girlfriend. In response, 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 finding him a girlfriend by saying, “I simply praise the living God.”

DeSantis was specifically questioned about his individual religious beliefs and strong adherence to Catholicism. He mentioned that when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, he expressed gratitude for the numerous prayers they received, as it greatly uplifted her morale. 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 personal religious beliefs. One notable example is George W. Bush, who, in 1999, responded to a question about his favorite political philosopher by mentioning Jesus Christ and how He had a profound impact on his life.

Robin Star, who resides in Waukee near Des Moines, expressed her satisfaction with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade during DeSantis’ speech at the church. However, she believes that Trump should not be solely credited for this outcome. 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 importance of winning, emphasizing the need for victory.

Jerry Star, her husband, 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 former 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 remarked. “It is now appropriate for someone else to take over.”