WASHINGTON - Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made their cases to evangelical voters who gathered in Washington for a pair of events on Friday, seeking an edge with a voting bloc likely to play a pivotal role in selecting a 2024 presidential nominee.
The pressure was all on DeSantis, who trails Trump in the Republican presidential primary by nearly 40 percentage points in most opinion polls, including among evangelical voters.
Both candidates spoke at a pair of national summits convened by the Concerned Women of America and the Family Research Council, evangelical advocacy groups that support laws restricting abortion among other issues.
At the Family Research Council event, DeSantis defended allowing churches to remain open in Florida during the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing cheers from the ballroom crowd.
"We protected our religious institutions when so many states were running roughshod over people's rights to practice their faith in full," he said.
DeSantis also talked up Florida's law that bans abortion at six weeks, one of the most restrictive in the nation. "We have stood up," he said.
Trump also addressed abortion at the council event, saying he supports bans with exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother, a position that was received coolly by the crowd.
Trump said a more restrictive position on abortion damages Republicans in elections.
"They lost a lot of elections, and we can't let that happen," he said. "Many politicians who are pro-life do not know how to properly discuss the topic."
Longtime president of the council, Tony Perkins, a prominent evangelical leader, did not endorse Trump during his 2016 campaign and has yet to endorse a candidate this time around. But introducing Trump, he praised him as "a man who fights for what he believes in."
Even with Trump's sobering talk on abortion, there was little sign he has lost his grip on social conservatives. He received a thunderous ovation from the crowd.
Trump holds a roughly 35 percentage-point lead over DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy among evangelical Christians, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll that closed on Thursday.
Those voters have stood by the twice-divorced Trump even as he rarely invokes scripture or speaks with an evangelical bent, and as he has faced a series of charges involving attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and a scheme to pay "hush money" to a porn star.
Many Christian activists credit him for helping to bring an end to nationwide abortion rights by appointing three conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last year overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Robert Goss, 77, a retired law-enforcement officer from Locust Dale, Virginia, was awaiting Trump and DeSantis at the council event, saying he was still deciding which candidate to support.
Goss said he could be persuaded 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."
Hannah Brusven, 25, a political organizer from Idaho who attended the women's event in Washington, said she was initially interested in DeSantis, but she had turned back to Trump.
"I really was thinking DeSantis would be a perfect person because he's young, he's vibrant. He could have been a new JFK," Brusven said, referring to popular Democratic President John F. Kennedy. "But he wasn't."
DeSantis' advisers are betting he can eat into Trump's significant polling lead by outperforming among devout Christians, especially those who are affluent and well-educated, according to several people familiar with his strategy.
That could be a major factor in the state of Iowa, where white evangelical voters are expected to turn out in large numbers in the first 2024 Republican nominating contest four months away.
On Thursday, DeSantis unveiled a "Faith and Family Coalition" of more than 70 faith leaders backing him in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, all early voting states.
DeSantis and several other Republican primary contenders are due to speak at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition's fall banquet on Saturday in Des Moines, another major gathering of religious conservatives.
Trump, who has a rocky relationship with some key political figures in Iowa, will not attend.
(Reporting by Gram Slattery and James Oliphant; Additional reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Howard Goller, Kim Coghill and Tom Hogue)