Donald Trump’s GOP rivals try to attract social conservatives in Iowa at an event he skipped

Former Vice President and current 2024 Republican presidential candidate Mike Pence receives safety instructions before his turn to shoot during the 10th annual Jasper County GOP trap shoot on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, at Jasper County Gun Club in Newton, Iowa. Four Republican presidential hopefuls, made a campaign stop at the event to speak with constituents and shoot a few rounds. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette via AP)

DES MOINES, Iowa — Hoping to cut into Donald Trump’s support at a major Iowa gathering of evangelical Christians, several of his top rivals on Saturday mostly avoided direct criticism of him on abortion and other issues key to social conservatives. 

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 behind Trump. 

The primary field’s split on abortion was once again on display, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis saying restrictions on the procedure should be left to the states — a position similar to Trump’s — while former Vice President Mike Pence referred to Trump as his “former running mate” and said he was wrong to oppose a national abortion ban. 

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. 

“Congress has really struggled to make an impact over the years,” DeSantis said. 

Pence said he disagreed with Trump and argued all Republican presidential candidates should back a federal abortion ban at a minimum of 15 weeks of pregnancy. 

“I believe it’s an idea whose time has come,” Pence said. “We need to stand for the unborn all across America.” 

A Trump attack came from former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is a frequent critic of the former president. He said “there’s another candidate, that I respect, but who is not here tonight” before slamming Trump for saying he wants “to make both sides happy” on abortion. 

Hutchinson said that unlike Trump, “both sides aren’t going to like me. This is going to be a fight for life.” 

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. 

DeSantis was asked specifically to talk about his personal faith and deeply held Catholic beliefs. He noted that when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, he was thankful for “the amount of prayers we received. It lifted my wife’s spirits up.” He said prayer was a key reason she was now cancer-free. 

Candidates discussing their personal faith has been a hallmark of successful Iowa caucus candidates for decades — including George W. Bush who in 1999 famously said, when asked to identify his favorite political philosopher, named Jesus Christ “because he changed my heart.” 

Robin Star of Waukee, just west of Des Moines, attended DeSantis’ address at the church and said she was glad the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade — but that Trump doesn’t deserve all the credit. Star said she’d nonetheless vote for Trump if he’s the Republican nominee, but fears he cannot unify the Republican Party enough heading into the general election against Biden. 

“We’ve got to win,” Star said. “We’ve just got to win.” 

Her husband, Jerry Star, was more definitive, saying “I believe it’s time for new leadership.” 

A retired Air Force officer, Jerry Star said he was very supportive of most of Trump’s time in the White House until Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of the former president’s supporters overran the U.S. Capitol. 

“He did a heck of a job in his four years, but he knocked it all down that day,” he said. “It’s time for someone else.”