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GOP 2024 contenders court Iowa evangelicals while vying to be top Trump alternative

<i>Anna Moneymaker/Scott Olson/Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Allison Joyce/Getty Images</i><br/>From left
Anna Moneymaker/Scott Olson/Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Allison Joyce/Getty Images
From left

By Veronica Stracqualursi and Eric Bradner, CNN

(CNN) — Republican presidential contenders aiming to position themselves as the party’s top alternative to former President Donald Trump will try to impress evangelicals in Iowa – a crucial voting bloc in the state that kicks off the GOP nominating process – at a major gathering Friday in Des Moines.

The Family Leadership Summit, led by influential Christian conservative organizer Bob Vander Plaats, will kick off months of intense campaigning in the Hawkeye State.

Trump is skipping the gathering, leaving his rivals with a potentially significant opening ahead of the party’s first presidential debate on August 23.

The candidates who are attending – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy – will be interviewed by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

The summit – one of several “cattle calls” that will draw much of the GOP field this summer, including the Iowa GOP’s Lincoln Dinner on July 28 – offers an opportunity for candidates to court Iowa evangelicals, but also for these conservative Christians to size up each candidate.

It is taking place against the backdrop of the GOP-controlled state legislature’s passage of a measure that bans abortion in most cases after six weeks of pregnancy. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is set to sign the bill into law Friday.

Attendees at Friday’s summit will be expecting the Republican presidential hopefuls to outline their stances on abortion – an issue on which some of the candidates have avoided articulating positions publicly, other than saying they’re “pro-life.”

Vander Plaats – the head of the Iowa-based Family Leader, the socially conservative group that hosts the summit – told CNN in an interview last month that the summit is an “educational opportunity,” rather than a campaign event.

“When Tucker Carlson interviews these national voices who want to be president, this is not going to be an opportunity for them to bash another candidate. This was going to be about who they are, what they would do, how they would respond. It’s all about them. It’s not about others in the race,” he said.

The Family Leadership Summit could be critical for DeSantis, whose hopes of winning the GOP nomination likely depend on a strong showing in Iowa. DeSantis, who’s trailing Trump in second place in most national polls, signed into law a similar six-week abortion ban in Florida earlier this year.

Pence has long cultivated ties with evangelical voters. He has advocated federal action to restrict abortion rights after 15 weeks of pregnancy, and has prodded GOP rivals for failing to take clear positions on federal abortion restrictions.

The GOP front-runner – who’s dodged questions on how he would handle a federal abortion ban – won’t have a presence at this year’s summit, which is the same event where Trump said in 2015 that then-Sen. John McCain of Arizona was not a war hero because he had been captured in Vietnam.

Trump and Vander Plaats have been at odds for years. In 2016, Trump called the influential Iowa conservative a “phony” and a “bad guy.” Vander Plaats, in the wake of the GOP’s underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterms, said Trump should not run for president in 2024. Vander Plaats was sharply critical of Trump’s refusal to call for nationwide abortion restrictions earlier this year, and told Radio Iowa this week that Trump “has a 20-30% self-inflicted ceiling” in the GOP primary.

A Trump spokesman attributed his absence to a “scheduling conflict,” saying the former president will be in Florida this weekend for the Turning Point Action conference and that he was in Iowa last week and will be back in the state next week.

Trump, who maintains a wide lead in national GOP polls, has attacked Reynolds in recent days over her decision not to endorse a candidate during the nominating contest.

Trump’s advisers have particularly taken issue with the governor attending several of DeSantis’ events and joining Casey DeSantis last week in her first solo campaign trip to the state. The former president on Monday slammed Reynolds’ neutrality, arguing he had boosted her successful 2018 gubernatorial bid with his endorsement. The criticism came despite Reynolds also speaking at events for Scott and Haley and saying that she would attend all candidates’ events if invited and if her schedule permits.

“I opened up the Governor position for Kim Reynolds, & when she fell behind, I ENDORSED her, did big Rallies, & she won. Now, she wants to remain ‘NEUTRAL.’ I don’t invite her to events!” Trump said on his social media website Truth Social.

Much of the party’s presidential field has come to Reynolds’ defense in the wake of Trump’s attacks.

Hutchinson, appearing on CNN’s “This Morning” said, “Gov. Reynolds being attacked by former president Trump for being neutral is pretty ridiculous if you want to carry Iowa.”

DeSantis in a tweet Monday called the Iowa governor “a strong leader who knows how to ignore the chirping and get it done.”

Haley called the governor a “conservative rockstar” in a tweet. “Like I always say, Iowa grows strong women!”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Kate Sullivan, Kristen Holmes and Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.

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