UNITED STATES: Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis addressed evangelical voters at dual events in Washington on Friday, aiming to gain an advantage with a crucial voting demographic in the 2024 presidential nominee selection process.
The primary pressure was on DeSantis, who lags behind Trump in Republican presidential primary polls, trailing by nearly 40 percentage points in most, even among evangelical voters.
Both candidates delivered speeches at national summits organised by Concerned Women of America and the Family Research Council, evangelical advocacy organisations that champion various issues, including abortion restrictions.
During his speech at the Family Research Council event, DeSantis received applause for defending the decision to keep churches open in Florida during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We protected our religious institutions when so many states were running roughshod over people’s rights to practice their faith in full,” he stated.
DeSantis also highlighted Florida’s stringent six-week abortion ban as a point of pride, stating, “We have stood up.”
During the council event, Trump also discussed abortion, expressing support for bans with exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and saving a mother’s life, a position that received a lukewarm response from the audience.
Trump said that adopting a more stringent position on abortion can be detrimental to the Republican Party in elections.
“They lost a lot of elections, and we can’t let that happen. Many politicians who are pro-life do not know how to properly discuss the topic,” he said.
Tony Perkins, a prominent evangelical leader and the longtime president of the council, refrained from endorsing Trump during his 2016 campaign and has not yet endorsed any candidate in the current election cycle. However, when introducing Trump, he commended him as “a man who fights for what he believes in.”
Despite Trump’s more moderate stance on abortion, there is little indication that he has lost his strong support among social conservatives. He received an enthusiastic ovation from the audience.
According to an Ipsos poll that concluded on Thursday, Trump maintains a commanding lead of approximately 35 percentage points over DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy among evangelical Christians.
The voters have remained loyal to the twice-divorced Trump despite his frequent references to scripture and his evangelical speech patterns, as well as his legal troubles stemming from attempts to rig the 2020 election and a plot to give “hush money” to a porn actress.
Many Christian activists attribute him to playing a crucial role in potentially ending nationwide abortion rights by nominating three conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. This court, last year, reversed the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Robert Goss, a 77-year-old retired law enforcement officer from Locust Dale, Virginia, was present at the council event, awaiting Trump and DeSantis. He mentioned that he’s still in the process of deciding which candidate to support.
Goss stated that he might be inclined to vote for Trump again, but “he’s got to get past all the legal things. And I just don’t want four more years of nothing but fighting and bickering. We want to get something done.”
DeSantis’ strategists are betting on his ability to erode Trump’s substantial lead in the polls by excelling among devout Christians, particularly those who are well-off and well-educated, as per several people familiar with his strategy.
This factor could play a significant role in Iowa, where there is anticipation of a substantial turnout among white evangelical voters in the first 2024 Republican nominating contest, just four months away.
Recently, DeSantis revealed a “Faith and Family Coalition,” consisting of over 70 faith leaders supporting him in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Lowa, all early voting states.
DeSantis, along with several other candidates vying for the Republican primary, is scheduled to address the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s fall banquet in Des Moines on Saturday, another significant gathering of religious conservatives.
Trump, whose relationship with certain influential figures in Iowa has been tumultuous, will not be present.