Robin Opsahl, Iowa Capital Dispatch
Republican presidential candidates shared personal stories about their faith, their opposition to abortion and their support of Israel at the Family Leader’s Presidential Thanksgiving Forum in Des Moines Friday, hoping to win evangelical Iowans’ support in the 2024 Iowa caucuses.
Three candidates, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, participated in the roundtable discussion. Only two other candidates who were invited did not appear: U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who dropped out of the race Sunday, and former President Donald Trump.
The former president, who holds a significant lead over his Republican rivals, has skipped the majority of “cattle call” events in Iowa as well as the Republican National Committee’s presidential debates where he would appear alongside other candidates. Instead, he typically holds his own, separate events, and this Saturday he plans to hold a rally in Fort Dodge.
Family Leader President and CEO Bob Vander Plaats, who moderated the forum, asked candidates to avoid attacking other candidates during the discussion — but did bring up the derogatory nicknames and bashing that the presidential hopefuls have faced, referencing Trump’s terms for his opponents like “DeSanctimonious” for DeSantis and “Bird Brain” for Haley.
“They’ve called me names and I’m not running for anything,” Vander Plaats said.
As the 2024 nominating cycle draws near, Republicans looking for an alternative to Trump are looking for the field to consolidate with conservatives rallying behind a single candidate. In the most recent Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll, DeSantis and Haley tied with 16% of likely Republican caucusgoers listing them as their first choice in the Jan. 15, 2024 caucuses.
Some prominent Iowa Republicans are weighing in, hoping to help a viable rival to Trump emerge from the field. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds endorsed DeSantis earlier this month, while Haley won an impromptu endorsement from Iowa Right to Life director Marlys Popma, a former Iowa GOP executive director, at another Friday event.
One prominent Iowa conservative has not weighed in on the race — Vander Plaats. The Family Leader president has endorsed the eventual winners of the Iowa Republican caucuses in multiple recent cycles, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016 and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008.
Though he has not backed a specific candidate ahead of the 2024 caucuses, the Evangelical leader has called for Republicans to “move on” from Trump. In a letter to supporters and donors, a pollster with Make America Great Again Inc., a super PAC backing Trump, said Vander Plaats would have “no significant impact” on the Iowa caucuses even if he were to endorse DeSantis.
Though Vander Plaats largely avoided criticizing Trump directly, he asked the candidates what they would do to restore civility and advocate for Christian values in office — aspects many Trump critics say the former president does not embody.
DeSantis said that he weathers attacks from Trump and other critics by putting on the “full armor of God.”
“That’s what you need to do to stand strong and to do what’s right,” he said. “And when you do that, none of this stuff ends up being effective. It’s only effective if we stoop to that level. You know, you don’t see me indulging in that.”
As presidential hopefuls addressed the crowd of 800 at the Marriott Des Moines Downtown, they spoke about their own personal relationship to religion, as well as the ways they brought religious values into politics.
DeSantis told the crowd that Democrats want to replace “traditional religions” with “leftist ideology” and are opposed to religious freedom — pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission lawsuit, in which a cake store’s owner, citing his Christian beliefs, refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
“They will say, ‘Go to church, yeah, have your fun on Sunday for that one hour — but don’t you dare bring that into public life,’” he said. “‘Don’t actually live your life and live your faith.’ That — they will not abide by that. And if there’s ever a conflict between you living your faith and practicing your faith and their agenda, they expect you to bend the knee. That is not religious freedom as our founding fathers understood it.”
Vander Plaats also asked Ramaswamy, who practices Hinduism, to explain how his faith aligns with evangelical Iowans. Ramaswamy said that many of his values and beliefs are the same as those of the Christian Iowans he has met — pointing to values like believing in one God, supporting the sanctity of marriage, opposing premarital sex and adultery, not lying or stealing.
“Would I be a president who promotes Christianity across this country?” Ramaswamy said. “I can’t, for a number of reasons: I’m not Christian, I don’t think that’s actually what we should want the U.S. president exactly doing, either. That’s a job for pastors and leaders. We need to carry that out. But will I stand for those fair values, for those shared values? Will I promote them in the example that we set, revive them in the next generation of Americans? You’re darn right I will.”
All three of the candidates also brought in their personal relationship to faith, as well as their family’s stories, when talking about their commitment to opposing legalized abortions.
The candidates’ and their spouses each had difficulties in having children: Haley described her and her husband’s troubles conceiving, and DeSantis spoke of his wife Casey experiencing a miscarriage, and the impact it had on them.
Ramaswamy’s son joined him on stage as he described his wife Apoorva going through one miscarriage, and believing she experienced another miscarriage following complications.
“I get the call, she’s crying, I’m getting ready to console her,” Ramaswamy said. “She said, ‘they found a heartbeat.’ … And that’s a life, right, that’s this guy right here.”
While all three candidates described themselves as “pro-life,” Vander Plaats asked Haley to better explain her position as expressed during debates on abortion policy.
The South Carolina Republican said she did not believe that Republicans would realistically be able to pass a federal abortion ban. Instead, she said that Republicans need to focus on on supporting mothers, advocating for adoption services and banning late-term abortions.
The party, she said, must also address the fears of women and those opposed to abortion bans by enacting laws that prevent women who get abortions from facing imprisonment or the death sentence. She said the issue of abortion has been made more contentious by both political parties, arguing that Democrats employ “fear” and Republicans’ “judgement” on the topic of abortion. Those approaches, she said, will not allow either party to reach the consensus needed to pass legislation.
“When you’re dealing with something this personal, let’s deal with this with respect instead of division,” Haley said. “When you deal with it with respect and make it personal, you’re going to bring more people to you instead of pushing people away. I’m trying to bring more people to us, to have the conversation of, ‘How do we save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as possible?’”
The candidates also all pledged to support Israel in its war against Hamas, calling for the U.S. to continue sending aid as needed to the Middle Eastern ally. All denounced Democrats and international organizations like the United Nations for criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza, where more than 12,000 Palestinians have died since the initial attack by Hamas Oct. 7.
“Everyone runs to Israel when she gets hit,” Haley said. “But you’ve got to support her when she hits back too.”
DeSantis said his support for Israel is not just because of its place as a key ally to the U.S. in the Middle East, but because of its religious significance in Christianity. He talked about traveling to Israel with his family and seeing holy sites referenced in the Bible, and said that would not be possible if Israel was not in control of those sites. Israel is the “caretaker” of history, he said.
“Our entire civilization, western civilization, was birthed in the holy land,” DeSantis said. “We are based on the Judeo-Christian tradition. You would not have the United States of America if you did not have the thousands of years of history that is represented in the Bible.”
Though the roundtable discussion focused largely on religious issues, there was a dispute about whether the event was too similar to a debate earlier in November. The RNC sent letters to Republican presidential candidates saying that those participating in the event would be disqualified from taking part in future Republican presidential debates.
This past Saturday, Vander Plaats posted on social media that he and the RNC reached an agreement on the format of the forum, and that participating candidates would not be barred from future GOP debates — the first of which is scheduled for Dec. 6 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
“The Forum is NOT a debate,” he wrote. “Thus, the RNC is giving a thumbs up for candidates to participate. Thanks to the RNC for facilitating a win/win for the process.”
One of the forum’s attendees, Christina Van Gorp of Spencer, said she enjoyed the event because of how it differed from traditional debates. The candidates presented a “united front” as a Republican Party instead of fighting amongst themselves, she said, adding that she was happy to learn more about the “moral core values” they would bring to the presidency.
Van Gorp said that while she liked what Trump accomplished as president, she said she was looking at other candidates such as DeSantis, who she said may be able to accomplish more in two terms on issues of religious freedom.
“Faith is a huge part of our decision, and we like to see the candidates that have a strong faith base, and see that they all have a foundation on that,” Van Gorp said. “Seeing them all quote the Bible so fluently — this really was a good motivator for us, and very refreshing.”
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