DES MOINES, Fla. — 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 far 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.
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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 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."
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.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, a longtime bachelor, was asked about reports that he has a girlfriend who hasn't been publicly identified. On Saturday, he called her a "lovely Christian girl" and asked the crowd, "Can we just pray together for me?"
He added, "I just say praise the living God," seemingly joking about the Lord's work in finally ensuring he has a girlfriend.
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.”