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Trump skips Iowa gathering of evangelical Christians. His rivals hope for a chance to gain ground



Some of Donald Trump’s top rivals for the Republican presidential nomination are addressing a gathering of influential evangelical Christians in Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Some of Donald Trump 's top rivals for the Republican presidential nomination addressed a large gathering of influential Iowa evangelical Christians on Saturday night, hoping to woo them away from the former president at an event he is skipping.

Former Vice President Mike Pence was attending 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 speaking 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.

“Once again it starts in Iowa and it depends on you,” Republican Iowa Gov. Reynolds told the crowd. “Are you ready to take our country back?”

The crowd of more than 1,000 also heard Iowa Republican Congresswoman Ashley Hinson play “Amazing Grace” on her violin with many singing along. It featured many 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 early GOP primary lead. That's despite his skipping the event and many of the gatherings that attract most of the other candidates. He's also remained popular with evangelical Christians and social conservatives in Iowa and elsewhere who 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.”

Saturday's 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 also were being asked about gender education in schools, an issue that has risen to the top of social conservatives’ priorities in the past two years.

DeSantis was among the candidates who also held a series of pre-banquet events throughout Iowa. The governor spoke at a town hall in the rural community of Red Oak earlier Saturday, and at the evangelical Christian church on Des Moines’ southside of the politically influential pastor Mike Demastus.

There, DeSantis led a discussion on religious liberty and railed against what he called the “steady chipping away” by “the left in this country intent on infringing on religious freedom.”

The Florida governor called to the altar supporters who praised his signing a Florida law this year banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, and others who praised his support for allowing religious exceptions for businesses who have refused to provide services for same-sex marriages out of their religious conscience.

Yet DeSantis didn’t discuss his own faith, a hallmark of successful caucus candidates, even going back to George W. Bush who in 1999 famously said when asked to identify his favorite political philosopher, named “Jesus Christ,” “because he changed my heart.”

Instead, DeSantis stood on the altar while more than a dozen pastors placed their hands on him and prayed that “he has his ears as open as he can for you to speak to him.”

Robin Star of Waukee, just west of Des Moines, attended DeSantis' address at the church and said she was glad the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade but that Trump doesn't deserve all the credit. Still, Star said she'd vote for Trump if he’s the Republican nominee but fears he cannot unify the Republican Party enough heading into the general election against President Joe Biden.

“We’ve got to win," Star said. "We’ve just got to win.”