Former Vice President Mike Pence planned to attend the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition's annual banquet and town hall in Des Moines along with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Also on the schedule of speakers were Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor who served as Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, as well as Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former Texas Rep. Will Hurd.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican who has not endorsed a candidate, was attending, too.
The crowd will largely consist of devout and well-connected social conservatives whose ranks are large enough to 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 as he has built a large GOP primary lead.
Despite skipping the event and many of the gatherings that attract most of the candidates, Trump has maintained his popularity with evangelical Christians and social conservatives in Iowa and elsewhere. They were delighted to see his three picks for the U.S. Supreme Court vote to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision last year and erase a federally guaranteed right to abortion.
“No president has ever fought for Christians as hard as I have, and I will keep fighting for Christians as hard as I can for four more years in the White House,” Trump said at the Family Research Council’s annual Pray Vote Stand conference in Washington on Friday night. He added, "Every promise I made to Christians as a candidate, I delivered.”
The banquet is the last time a large group of Iowa evangelical conservatives will have the chance to see the candidates side-by-side, meaning they won't see Trump. The former president skipped similar events with crowds of thousands in Iowa in April and June.
Abortion often dominates the discussion at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition events, but candidates will also likely be asked about gender education in schools, an issue that has risen to the top of social conservatives’ priorities in the past two years.
DeSantis held a series of pre-banquet Saturday events, including speaking in the rural community of Red Oak and at an evangelical Christian church on Des Moines’ south side, where politically active Iowa pastor Mike DeMastus serves.
“You are going to face blowback, you’re going to face attacks, you’re going to face smears, and it’s the faith in God that gives you the strength to stand firm against the lies, against the deceit, against the opposition,” DeSantis said at Friday's Family Research Council event.
As President Joe Biden runs for reelection, the Democrat and top members of his party are championing abortion, promising to codify the guarantees of Roe v. Wade. But getting such a measure through a divided Congress is almost impossible.
Biden has also proposed federal rules to prohibit schools from categorically banning transgender athletes in school sports. His proposal would allow schools to institute limits designed to ensure fairness or prevent sports-related injuries.
DeSantis, during his appearance in Red Oak, promised to battle gender education and a host of other polices he said had pushed society too far to the left. He said 2024 will be about stopping “the woke mind virus.”
“As president we must, together, work to leave the woke ideology in the dustbin of history,” the governor said.