FILE PHOTO: Former Vice President Mike Pence gestures at the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S. April 14, 2023. REUTERS/Chris Bergin
By Nathan Layne
CLIVE, Iowa (Reuters) – Republican presidential hopefuls will make their pitch to evangelical voters in Iowa on Saturday, the first major event for candidates to court the key conservative voting bloc in a state set to hold the party’s first nominating contest in early 2024.
The annual presidential forum, hosted by the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition conservative nonprofit is a chance for evangelical leaders and voters to see where the candidates stand on issues ranging from abortion to school choice.
It will be headlined by former Vice President Mike Pence, a devout evangelical who may soon launch a presidential bid, and U.S. Senator Tim Scott, who is exploring a run. Former President Donald Trump will participate remotely via video link.
The event comes as Trump appears to be consolidating his grip on the Republican Party, with some national polls showing him expanding his lead over Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential primary rival who is not attending the forum but will visit the state next month.
Iowa is slated to hold the first-in-the-nation Republican caucus in early 2024. Strong evangelical support early on in the nominating process could help give a challenger a chance to strike a blow against Trump, who won three-fourths of the white evangelical vote nationally in 2020.
“There is potential for somebody else because there are some Republicans, even some who voted for Trump in ’16 and ’20, who are saying it’s time to move on,” said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.
Among other scheduled speakers at Saturday’s event are former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, venture capitalist and author Vivek Ramaswamy and Michigan businessman Perry Johnson, all of whom have said they plan to seek the Republican nomination.
Trump won 76% of the white evangelical vote in 2020, down from 80% in 2016, according to Edison Research exit polls. About one-third of U.S. adults identify as born-again or evangelical Christians, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in November 2020.
The former president seems to be gaining ground with evangelicals. In a March poll by Monmouth University, Trump edged DeSantis among evangelicals in a two-way matchup 51% to 42%, a nine-point improvement for Trump from the month before.
Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, said each speaker on Saturday evening will have four minutes to talk freely to the audience, followed by a moderated session of questions and answers.
Scheffler said that while support for Trump remains solid, many evangelicals want to “kick the tires” and are open to another candidate. He said religious liberty, abortion and transgender issues would be among the topics in focus at the event.