GOP 2024 hopefuls attend Iowa forum as they look to court evangelical voters

Several Republican presidential hopefuls are slated to speak at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s spring kickoff event Saturday as they look to court Christian conservatives amid signs the 2024 GOP primary is intensifying.

The event, hosted by one of the state’s leading conservative political advocacy groups, offers declared and prospective candidates an opportunity to make inroads with a critical voting bloc in the state that will hold the first 2024 nominating contest on the Republican side.

The forum also takes place as abortion once again dominates the political landscape with a legal fight over a medication abortion drug playing out in the courts less than a year after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Former President Donald Trump, who pleaded not guilty earlier this month in Manhattan criminal court to 34 felony criminal charges of falsifying business records, will address the event in Clive, Iowa, remotely. Former Vice President Mike Pence, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Texas Rep. Will Hurd will attend in-person.

Republican presidential candidates Vivek Ramaswamy, Larry Elder, Perry Johnson and former Hawaii congresswoman and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard are also scheduled to speak. Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird and the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, Jeff Kaufmann, will serve as moderators.

Steve Scheffler, the president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, told CNN they were expecting more than a thousand people to attend the event.

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Notably absent from the list of speakers are Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley and DeSantis, who is fueling speculation about a presidential run. Haley spokesperson Ken Farnaso cited scheduling conflicts, and a DeSantis spokesperson pointed to a Utah GOP convention on Saturday where the Florida governor is delivering the keynote address when asked why he wasn’t attending.

The Republican Party has struggled at times since the overturning of Roe v. Wade to maneuver the politics of abortion. Democrats had a stronger-than-expected showing in the 2022 midterms as candidates tapped into supporters of abortion rights who were motivated in the wake of the high court’s ruling.

Conservative candidates have lost several recent competitive races, including a Wisconsin Supreme Court election earlier this month, in which abortion was a key issue.

“There is a spectrum of pro-life, and they’re all going to have to find their way, and I will guarantee you, by the time we are done and we have our field and it’s September or October, you are going to have some space and some gradation in a pro-life stance,” Kaufmann told CNN on Friday.

“Certainly, you are going to see variations of the pro-life stance when it comes to exceptions,” he added. “And each of the candidates are going to have to weigh where they’re at personally and how they decide to package and message that to individuals.”

Conservative states across the nation have moved to ban or severely restrict abortion since the Supreme Court eliminated federal protections last summer. DeSantis signed a bill last week behind closed doors that would ban most abortions in Florida after six weeks of pregnancy, which is before many even know they are pregnant.

Pence commended DeSantis for signing the bill and praised the ruling earlier this month by a Texas federal judge to suspend the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the medication abortion drug mifepristone, which the medical community has deemed safe and effective.

The US Supreme Court on Friday protected access to the drug as the appeals process play out by freezing the Texas decision and a subsequent appellate ruling that placed restrictions on its usage.

Anti-abortion activists say Trump will still need to win them over in 2024

Trump’s campaign on Friday softened its stance that abortion should be decided at the state level after receiving backlash from the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.

In a statement provided to CNN, a Trump spokesperson said that “the States have now been empowered to take up the issue” since the overturning of Roe v. Wade and that Trump “believes it is in the States where the greatest advances can now take place to protect the unborn.”

The statement backed off an earlier assertion in an on-the-record statement Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung provided to The Washington Post that said the high court “got it right when they ruled this is an issue that should be decided at the State level.”

The backlash reflects the frustration among anti-abortion activists that Trump has not made abortion a key issue of his re-election campaign and the tightrope the Republican Party and 2024 GOP candidates are walking on the topic.

Trump did not mention abortion during his speech last fall kicking off his third presidential run and said he believed the “abortion issue,” which he argued was “poorly handled by many Republicans,” was to blame for the GOP’s underperformance in the November midterms.

Haley, who is slated to give a speech focused on abortion on Tuesday in Virginia, said this week in Iowa that she didn’t want to “get into that game” of defining at what point in a pregnancy she would support an abortion ban. Scott, who has formed a presidential exploratory committee, has said he would sign legislation banning abortion at 20 weeks if he were elected president.

When pressed by NBC News whether he would support a six-week abortion ban, Scott said, “If I were president of the United States, I would literally sign the most conservative pro-life legislation that they can get through Congress.