DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — More than half a dozen Republicans who are running or could run for president made their overtures to religious conservatives at an Iowa cattle rally Saturday that has long been a major parade on the Republican primary calendar.

Before a crowd of 1,000 at the spring inauguration of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group of mid-level candidates looking to break out of the pack mingled with the crowd, many of whom were influential activists across the state. They called for new restrictions on abortion rights and gender-affirming care, as well as the expansion of school choice programs and the closure of the Department of Education.

“The battle against radical gender ideology is a battle for religious freedom,” former Vice President Mike Pence told the crowd. «And it’s a battle we must fight.»

The event was headlined by Donald Trump, who addressed the crowd via pre-recorded video. Absent were Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who was addressing the Utah Republican Party convention, and former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, two contenders who often find themselves in second place and in between. the top five, respectively, behind the former president among Republican primary voters. . Her absence offered more space for candidates and potential candidates like Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and billionaire businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.

Attendees also heard from presidential candidates Larry Elder, a conservative media personality and failed candidate for governor of California, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, and Perry Johnson, a businessman who failed to win the Republican Party’s gubernatorial nomination in Michigan. last year. Former Representatives Will Hurd of Texas and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who left the Democratic Party in October, gave the impression they, too, might be interested in a presidential run, simply by showing up at the Iowa showcase.

Former President Donald Trump held a conference call on Saturday.Scott Olson/Getty Images

The constituency in the Fe y Libertad event is key for the Republicans. More than 9 in 10 Iowa Republicans identify as Christian, according to data from the Pew Research Center. In 2020, 3 in 4 white evangelicals endorsed Trump, a slight decline from 2016. exit poll programs.

If there is a crowd receptive to an anti-abortion message, it would be the voters gathered here. The candidates at Saturday’s forum expressed their good faith against abortion, but did not go into detail about the specific policies they would enact in office.

“Most important of all, we named three justices to the United States Supreme Court who sent Roe v. Wade to the ash heap of history where he belongs,» Pence said. «You did that Iowa. And you have given America a fresh start for life.»

The person who spoke the most about abortion was Trump, who in recent months has sought to distance himself from the strict restrictions that are being advanced at the state level, although the annulment of Roe v. Wade was only made possible by his three Supreme Court appointments. The anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America criticized Trump last week for saying abortion should be decided at the state level.

By touting the judges he nominated to the high court, Trump also promoted his «historic action to protect the unborn» and called himself «the most pro-life president in American history.»

“I will stand proud in defense of innocent life, just as I did for four very powerful and strong years,” he said. «Because every child born and unborn is a sacred gift from God.»

Speaking to reporters, Pence said there was space between the former president he served and himself on how abortion should be handled. On Trump saying abortion rights should be determined at the state level, Pence said, «I don’t agree with the former president who says this is the state’s only problem» and voiced his support for a 15-week federal ban.

“We have been given a new start for life in this country,” he said.

To the chagrin of some Republicans, abortion has been a hot topic in the party since the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion last year and the 2022 midterm elections that were largely defined by the issue. The Republican Party is now seeking to balance the wishes of its anti-abortion base with electoral realities in the general voting pool, where abortion access remains much more popular.

Former Vice President Mike Pence greets guests at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Spring Inauguration on April 22, 2023 in Clive, Iowa.
Former Vice President Mike Pence has distanced himself from former President Donald Trump’s position on abortion. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Voters and candidates at the event said they remained strong supporters of anti-abortion policies, but acknowledged some of the challenges they face trying to enact the broader agenda.

Ruth Neubert of Iowa, from Oskaloosa, told NBC News that she thinks “some of our Republican friends have gone too far.

“I am with three granddaughters and a daughter,” she said. «I definitely have the opinion that if something were to happen, incest or rape, absolutely that avenue should be available.»

Meanwhile, Ramaswamy told NBC News that Republicans need to broaden an agenda that also promotes pro-adoption policies, boosts child care and has «greater responsibility for men.»

“My opinion is that more Americans are pro-life than will admit it even to themselves,” he said.

Prior to the event, Democratic National Committee spokesman Rhyan Lake condemned the gathering as a gathering of “MAGA Republicans who have spent their entire careers pushing an extreme agenda.

“Every single 2024 Republican has doubled down on their extremely extreme positions that are out of step with working Americans and can count on voters holding them accountable,” Lake added.

Some attendees and speakers took note of high-profile contenders who died at the spring inauguration, which in 2016 drew Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and a host of other Republican presidential hopefuls. (Trump, who had yet to testify at that stage of the election cycle, was not present.)

Johnson, a long shot candidate who hasn’t registered in the polls, took a moment at the end of his allotted time to say he thought «DeSantis is making a big mistake not coming here.»

Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird, who served as moderator on Saturday, told NBC News before the event that she did not think much of the absences, attributing them to scheduling issues. But she said the gathering offers candidates a chance to connect with many key activists across the state at once.

“There are some great leaders in that crowd, community activists, volunteers, people who put their blood, sweat and tears behind a candidate,” he said. «So I think winning the support of those key activists from across the state is very important to a successful caucus campaign.»

Voters and activists in attendance later said they were particularly intrigued by Scott and Ramaswamy, whom most said they had never heard from before.

Sen. Tim Scott, RS.C., speaks at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition spring launch on Saturday, April 22, 2023, in Clive, Iowa.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina recently launched an exploratory committee for a presidential run.Charlie Neibergal/AP

Lynn Proudfoot, a Des Moines Republican activist, said she was «disappointed» that DeSantis wasn’t at the event, but said she still hasn’t decided who to back in the nation’s first caucus in February. She said she was impressed by Ramaswamy and said the candidates hit the mark on every note attractive to religious voters.

“I can’t say that I am much closer to a decision than ever before,” he said. “I will have to continue to let it play out. … I don’t think anyone really was a downer.»

But while some remained undecided, others said it would be difficult to vote against Trump in a primary.

“A lot of people tell me they don’t like Trump and they would never vote for him because they don’t like him,” said Mike Vanderpool, a member of the Warren County Republican Central Committee. “I’ve been in business my whole life and I probably never liked my best employees. I understand. I mean, sometimes you have to swallow hard to get what you want.

“When this guy was president, there was never a day of the week that I didn’t feel like this guy got up in the morning and worked for me,” he continued, adding, “and if he runs, I’m gone. have problems. I just think we need younger blood… maybe in a little different direction. It is a difficult decision».

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