As 2024 campaigns gear up, Republican contenders pitched an influential group of faith-based voters in Iowa that will be key in deciding the winner of the first contest of the Republican presidential primary next year.
In one of the first major events in the race for the White House, speakers at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s spring kick-off included former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former congressional members Tulsi Gabbard and Will Hurd, and already-announced candidates like Vivek Ramaswamy, Larry Elder and Perry Johnson. Former President Donald Trump gave a video address.
The GOP hopefuls faced the task of appealing to some of the most conservative, evangelical voters in Iowa who have largely supported Trump while at the same time differentiating themselves as an alternative.
Many centered their message on faith for the audience.
"I think it’s so important we as a nation get back to God or we’re done, and so I feel like most of the speakers had it right on," said Lucienne Buell. "We were real excited about that."
Topics centered on cultural issues and what many in the audience viewed as religious freedom, including parent roles in schools and policies impacting people who are transgender.
But among the top issues is abortion.
Many made clear their stance against it, but some speakers stressed it more than others, particularly leaders of the last administration.
The event came the day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruledto offer temporary protection to the abortion pill as legal challenges played out in a lower court.
SEE MORE: 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls court faith-based voters in Iowa
A key focus of Trump’s address was on his anti-abortion record in the effort to overturn Roe v. Wade.
"Those justices delivered a landmark victory for protecting innocent life. Nobody thought it was going to happen; they thought it’d be another 50 years," Trump said in a recorded message. "From first day in office, I took historic action to protect the unborn."
But the remarks come as Trump faces criticism from a major anti-abortion rights group over federal legislation.
Pence outlined the difference with his former boss. While he gave Trump credit for following through to appoint justices, he said he doesn’t agree that abortion is a state-only issue, though he thinks it’s "more likely this will continue to be sorted out in detail on a state-by-state basis."
"I do think there is a desire to see people at national level in the Congress and ultimately in the White House who will also stand for life. And if I have any role to play in our national life in the future, I’ll continue to champion it at the state level, and I'll support pro-life measures in our national level as well," Pence said.
A recent NBC News pollfound more voters believed abortion should be legal all or most of the time. But in earlier polling, the Des Moines Register reportedthat Republicans and evangelicals were more likely to take a stance against it.
"I prefer the states handle it, but if there’s federal legislation, I will look at what’s presented," Asa Hutchinson told Scripps News.
"I view abortion as a form of murder. Murder is dealt with by states. There’s no federal murder statute," Vivek Ramaswamy told Scripps News.
But even as the field of Republican candidates grows, some of Iowa’s most conservative voters still like Trump.
"You heard him. What he said tonight, he still believes in sanctity of life," said Don Buell.
Sam Dirksen said he could consider an alternative, but right now he’s not, "just because of his speech. He showed everything he’s done. Some of the things about his personality I’m not real big on, but he, you know, had a list of things he wanted to do and he did them, so that’s what I like about him."
"They all had a good persona; they presented things that were. I was very impressed with Trump's speech because he laid out what he wanted to say and he didn’t hold back, and I’m glad to see that because we’re all wondering exactly why would you want to run with all the things you went through already," said Shirley Clark, but she couldn’t say who she would support at this time.
"I just don’t know for sure where I’m at with him right now. I mean, I’m a supporter of him, but I guess I’m just trying to weigh the options there and see if, I’m just not sure if it’s worth all the battle it’s gonna cause to have him in," said Lucienne Buell.
SEE MORE: What impact does a Trump indictment have on the GOP?
Many polls show Trump leading when compared to other potential contenders, who must convince Trump supporters to vote differently in the primary.
The event gave us a chance to set the stage for future announcements and campaigns getting underway.
"Right now there’s sympathy factors that’s been created because of the indictment in New York that was so ill advised, and you know that people rally around somebody that’s being picked on. I think that’s what you see, but as time goes on, I think, but that’s my responsibility. Let's reflect about what’s really happened here," Asa Hutchinson said. "You erase all of the indictments and investigations who can beat Biden. That’s the question. I think as you get closer and they build a trust relationship with you, they will evaluate it in those terms."
Hutchinson is gearing up for a formal announcement this week. He told Scripps News it may include policy announcements that will have "some good meat", potentially on law enforcement, Medicare, and Social Security.
Meanwhile, Sen. Tim Scott, who formed a presidential exploratory committee, pursued an optimistic message.
"There’s something in the culture today that seems to suggest the drug of victimhood and the narcotic of despair is to be consumed. I believe individual responsibility leads to the American dream," Scott said.
Scott, who stopped by an Iowa farm ahead of Saturday night, is on a Faith in America tour but did not offer a timeline for a potential announcement.
"I think people want a fighter and that’s good, but we also want to win, that’s better. So the real question is, how do we do that? And one of the ways that we do that is by making sure our message is in sync with what the voters want and what the nation needs, and I will say, so far, so good," Scott said.
Pence said he and the former second lady were giving "prayerful consideration" but had nothing to announce.
"I don’t have anything to announce today, but we continue to be very encouraged by the response and the affirmation we’re getting from people here in Iowa and New Hampshire, and other states around the country. I think this country is in a lot of trouble, and I think the Biden administration has failed America at home and abroad," Pence said.
Meanwhile, Vivek Ramaswamy, who already announced and was on a bus tour in Iowa, said he would take the America First agenda further than Donald Trump by ending "race-based affirmative action" through executive order, abandoning "this climate change cult," and ending the U.S. Department of Education.
"That’s going further than Trump ever did. But to do that, we need a moral mandate. We need a, I would say, a landslide election. I think I'm the only person in this race who’s actually capable of delivering that. And I think if we’re doing it based on first principles and moral authority, we can go even further with that agenda," he said.
Ahead of the remarks, the Democratic National Committee criticized what they view as an extreme agenda, with spokesperson Rhyan Lake stating, "This cattle call is just the latest gathering of MAGA Republicans who’ve spent their entire careers pushing for an extreme agenda—from banning abortion to gutting Social Security to wanting to rip away affordable health care access from millions of Americans. Each and every 2024 Republican has doubled down on their exceedingly extreme positions that are out of step with hardworking Americans and can count on being held accountable by voters."
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has said he intends to run and is reportedly mulling over an announcement this week.
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