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Republican presidential hopefuls court Iowa evangelicals

 More than one thousand people attend the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition's Spring Kickoff Event in Clive, Iowa at the Horizon Events Center on April 22, 2023
Clay Masters
More than 1,000 people attend the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition's Spring Kickoff Event in Clive at the Horizon Events Center on Saturday.

Former President Donald Trump defended his record for restricting abortion access in the country on Saturday in suburban Des Moines. He appeared via video in front of more than 1,000 people attending the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition spring kickoff event at the Horizon Event Center in Clive.

Trump is seeking the Republican presidential nomination again and Iowa leads the process with its caucuses. Trump touted his judicial appointments during his first term as president; including justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanagh and Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. Those justices were part of the landmark decision that overturned Roe V. Wade in June 2022.

“Last year, after decades of work by organizations like yours those justices delivered a landmark victory for protecting innocent life,” Trump said in the video. “Nobody thought it was going to happen. They thought it was going to be another 50 years.”

Last week, a major anti-abortion group blasted Trump for saying abortion restrictions should be a state issue. The eight other declared and potential Republican presidential candidates appeared in-person at the Saturday event. Former Vice President Mike Pence was there. He touted the Trump administration’s work on restricting abortion access.

Pence told reporters after his remarks he disagrees with Trump on how far abortion restrictions should go.

“I do think it’s more likely that this issue is resolved at the state level but I don’t agree with the former president who says this is a states only issue,” Pence said. “We’ve been given a new beginning for life in this country.”

Pence says he will make a formal decision on running for the Republican presidential nomination in the coming weeks. The declared candidates who spoke were businessman Perry Johnson, radio host Larry Elder entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison.

The other speakers were South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (who announced an exploratory presidential campaign earlier this month), and former U.S. Reps. Will Hurd of Texas and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.

This is the first event, or “cattle call,” to feature multiple presidential hopefuls of the 2024 cycle; a chance for potential caucus-goers to hear from candidates. The politicians who spoke in-person gave short speeches and then sat and took questions from Republican Party of Iowa chairman Jeff Kaufmann and newly-elected Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird.

In addition to abortion restrictions, the politicians spoke about their opposition to transgender rights and the desire to promote Christian values and “school choice.” Some called for ending the Department of Education.

Notably absent was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made one trip to Iowa.

“I think DeSantis is making a huge mistake by not coming here,” Perry Johnson said when his time on-stage was wrapping up. “I just don't understand it, but to each his own.”

Polling has shown DeSantis having the best chance to take on Trump in the Republican nominating contest and has not officially announced. DeSantis will be back in Iowa next month. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was the only declared candidate who did not make the trip.

Attendees of the event told IPR News they were interested to see what candidates had to say and that it was still early in the process. But some in the crowd were ready to see Trump back in office.

“I want to listen to everybody, but I don't think my mind is going to change.” said Jolene Rosebeck of Waukee, who would like to see Trump return to the White House.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.