DeSantis’ two-pronged approach in Iowa: Hitting Trump on abortion and attacking personal issues

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis paused, bowed his head, and then told a ballroom packed with conservative Iowa Christians something he had never said in public before: His wife, Kay West DeSantis experienced a miscarriage during her first pregnancy several years ago.

DeSantis explained Friday at a forum for Republican presidential candidates hosted by an influential evangelical group that the couple had been trying to conceive before traveling to Israel.

“We went to Ruth’s tomb in Hebron — Ruth, chapter 4, verse 13 — and we prayed,” Mr. DeSantis said, quoting from the Bible at the Des Moines event. “We prayed a lot about having a family, and then, ‘lo and behold, we came back to the United States and not long after that we got pregnant. But unfortunately we lost our first child. “

The deeply personal revelation was an unexpected moment for DeSantis, who is typically tight-lipped about his faith and family life, as he responded to questions about the importance of the nuclear family. On the campaign trail, he has alternated between anecdotes about Ms. DeSantis and their three children, as well as his religious beliefs. Still, he only briefly addressed his wife’s miscarriage at the Iowa event, calling it just a “tough thing” and a test for him. Belief.

DeSantis, a Roman Catholic, has vigorously courted Iowa’s religious right, helping to win the state’s last three hotly contested Republican presidential primaries in favor of candidates who made their faith visible . White evangelical voters could play a decisive role in the state’s elections. The Jan. 15 caucuses are the first contests in the 2024 Republican primary, and they often turn to politicians who speak church language.

“You have to speak from the heart,” said Terry Ammann, a conservative pastor from Des Moines. “Anyone can quote a Bible verse.”

If DeSantis has any hope of defeating former President Donald J. Trump, who leads him by about 30 points in Iowa polls, it will lie in winning over conservative Christian voters while fending off Nikki Haley’s challenge. Former governor of South Carolina, considered moderate.

DeSantis’ hopes of winning Iowa remain slim, but Trump criticizes tough abortion restrictions Favored The support of many evangelical voters in Iowa could open the way for the Florida governor to solidify his position. The former president described the six-week abortion ban DeSantis signed in Florida as “a terrible mistake.” Mr. Trump accuses him of taking extreme positions on abortion due to recent Republican losses at the polls and refraining from supporting a federal abortion ban in order to win over moderates in the general election. That deeply disappoints some evangelical leaders and voters, who cheered him after his appointment to the Supreme Court helped overturn Roe v. Wade.

“Trump abandoned his anti-abortion stance,” said Mike Demastus, leader of an evangelical church in Des Moines. “That caused voters like me to stop and listen to other candidates.”

Mr. DeSantis is trying to exploit As he opened his new Iowa campaign headquarters outside Des Moines on Saturday, the governor told reporters that Mr. Trump’s remarks about abortion were the real “mistake.” “All pro-lifers should know he’s about to sell you out,” an interviewer on an Iowa radio station said.

Still, Mr. Trump remains popular with conservative Christians, and not just because of his role in Roe’s demise. Mr. Trump’s move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a very important issue for many evangelicals. He was also praised for his anti-immigration policies and a strong economy during his presidency, which reflected the political concerns of many religious voters beyond their faith.

Even many evangelical voters who supported DeSantis are deeply grateful to the former president.

“The reversal of Roe v. Wade — I never thought that would happen in my lifetime, but he did it,” said Jerry Boo, 54, a retired school administrator from Hampton, Iowa. Jerry Buseman said of Mr. Trump.

Now, DeSantis and the Trump campaign are locked in a back-and-forth battle with faith leaders and voters. Evangelicals are the largest religious group among Iowa Republicans, making up more than a third of their ranks, According to the Pew Research CenterSo far, polls show Trump is winning the race.The former president was supported by 51% of white evangelical voters, compared with 30% for DeSantis, according to a September CBS News/YouGov poll. That compares with 2016 , a major shift when evangelical flock to Ted Cruz, not Mr. Trump, helped the Republican senator from Texas win the primary that year.

“Trump has proven he has a backbone,” said Brad Sherman, a pastor and state legislator who supports Trump, even as he expressed hope that the former president would take a “tougher stance” on abortion. Do as he says. “

Like Mr. Sherman, many Iowans who support Mr. Trump appear willing to forgive his recent remarks about abortion. Only 40% of Trump supporters believe his criticism of the six-week abortion ban is correct, According to an October poll from the Des Moines Register, NBC News and MediaCom.

Alex Latcham, the Trump campaign’s early state director, said the former president has delivered results on issues that have been “top priorities” for evangelical voters for decades. Mr. Latcham said that in his office in Des Moines, he keeps a map of Iowa showing the locations of more than 100 religious leaders who support Trump.

“There’s still a lot of time, but it’s time for Trump to lose,” said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Alliance, who has remained neutral in the primary process.

To counter Mr Trump’s popularity, Mr DeSantis held his first official campaign rally In May, a group of pastors prayed for him at a church outside Des Moines. roll out He himself has the support of more than 100 religious leaders across the state. Before every Republican presidential debate, he invites a pastor to pray for him and his wife in the green room backstage. His campaign holds monthly video conference calls for pastors. Unlike Mr. Trump, he attended several church services in Iowa, including with Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, who later The reporter hosted DeSantis at the forum to discuss his wife’s miscarriage.

Never Back Down, a super PAC backing DeSantis’ campaign, produced ads accusing Trump of “betraying the anti-abortion movement,” questioning his support for Israel and criticizing his approach. Attack on Kim Reynoldspopular Iowa governor Support Mr. DeSantis and also signed a six-week abortion ban.

“DeSantis has done a great job of connecting with evangelicals,” said David Kochel, a veteran Iowa political strategist. “He’s running his campaign the right way. The question is, He’s doing this with someone who has already made a mark for evangelical voters.”

Ms. Haley, the other runner-up in the race, now tied with Mr. DeSantis in many polls in Iowa, does not appear to be as aggressive in pursuing the state’s faith leaders as she once was, and the way she conducts herself Also more cautious. talk about abortion That puts many evangelicals off.

Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for Haley’s campaign, highlighted Ms. Haley’s “unwavering support for Israel” as a reason why evangelical voters supported her. recent recognition Author: Marlys Popma, a well-known Iowa anti-abortion activist.

For DeSantis, a lack of approachable charisma may remain an issue in Iowa despite his efforts to become more intimate with evangelical voters.

Evangelical voters “want to see the heart,” said Sam Brownback, a conservative Christian and former Republican senator from Kansas whose own presidential campaign failed in 2008. “They want to see what you’re really like on the inside.”

The last three Republicans to win contentious caucuses — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Cruz — have all spoken lightly about their faith. (None of them were nominated.)

Mr. DeSantis critical Instead, he relied on his record as Florida governor to include laws in addition to a six-week abortion ban. Restricting the rights of transgender people and Discussion of restricted issues in school.

When reporters asked why he was a better fit for Iowa evangelicals than Trump, a three-times-married former Democrat, DeSantis responded that he “better represents their values.”

“I have a better record of actually delivering on my promises and fighting important fights for children, families and religious freedom,” he said Saturday at a coffee shop in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Republican voter Heidi Sokol, 51, teaches at a Christian school in Clear Lake, Iowa. She said she wasn’t bothered when she saw DeSantis speak at a Des Moines church where she talked far more about policy than personal beliefs. this fall.

“We are not going to hire the president to be our pastor,” Ms. Sokol said.

Ruth Igilnik Reporting from Washington, D.C.; Ann Hinga Klein from Ottumwa; and Chris Cameron From Newton, Iowa.

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