Former President Donald Trump is set to address evangelical Christian voters at a major gathering Saturday in Washington, where he will seek to shore up their support as his legal troubles mount and rivals take aim at his character.
The Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Policy Conference kicks off a summer of “cattle calls” at which the GOP field will audition in front of key audiences ahead of the 2024 presidential primary. Most of Trump’s rivals spoke Friday, with several taking jabs, both direct and subtle, at the former president.
But Trump has the conference’s prime speaking spot, delivering what’s billed as the keynote address at a Saturday dinner. It’s his first in-person appearance at a 2024 gathering of presidential hopefuls since announcing his candidacy. For previous events, such as Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s “Roast and Ride” earlier this month, Trump has appeared via video message.
The Faith & Freedom conference provides a window into a critical constituency in the Republican nominating fight: evangelical voters. Those voters play an especially large role in the Iowa caucuses and South Carolina primary – the first and third contests on the 2024 GOP calendar.
For Trump, who a CNN poll last week found remains the clear front-runner for the 2024 GOP nod with 47% support among Republican and Republican-leaning voters nationwide – well ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 26% and former Vice President Mike Pence’s 9% – the most significant threat he currently faces could be a series of legal battles, including his federal indictment on charges tied to his alleged mishandling of classified documents.
Trump has made that indictment a focus of recent events, addressing it at length at rallies. In an interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier, he offered a multitude of new justifications for keeping classified material after leaving the White House and refusing to turn them over to the National Archives and Records Administration.
For the rest of the field, the gathering Friday and Saturday represented an opportunity to chip away at Trump’s support – or at least define themselves in front of an important constituency in case GOP voters ultimately abandon the former president.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was also United Nations ambassador under Trump, used her speech Saturday to mark the first anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade
Haley said she believes there should be a federal law regulating abortion but acknowledged again that Republicans face a steep challenge in enacting hard-line nationwide restrictions because of a lack of support in Congress.
“We have to humanize this situation. We have to respect the fact that everybody has a story. And we have one goal – to make sure we save as many babies as possible and protect as many mothers as possible,” the former governor said.
Former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, who entered the GOP presidential race on Thursday, was a late addition to the speakers’ list. He centered his roughly five-minute remarks on his biography and his time working in the CIA, and, like Haley and many other GOP contenders who spoke at the conference, he didn’t mention Trump in front of the Trump-friendly crowd.
Hurd has been a vocal critic of Trump, calling the former president a threat to US national security in the wake of his federal indictment. Trump has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges.
The Trump-heavy lineup at the conference – with the former president in the keynote slot and a number of his allies, including former Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, on the speakers’ roster – underscores his dominance within the party.
Still, on Friday, several candidates used their speeches to take aim at the former president, in direct and more subtle ways.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie focused on the importance of “character” and told the crowd Trump had “let us down.”
“Beware of a leader who never makes mistakes, beware of a leader who has no faults, beware of a leader who says when something goes wrong, it’s everybody else’s fault. And he goes and blames,” Christie said, in a clear reference to Trump.
As Christie criticized Trump, several audience members began loudly booing.
“You can boo all you want,” he told them.
Other Republican 2024 contenders either ignored Trump altogether or defended him. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott criticized the Justice Department special counsel’s indictment of Trump.
“In this radical left Biden administration, they weaponize the Department of Justice against their political enemies. That is wrong. We deserve better in the United States of America,” Scott said.
A key issue in GOP debates beginning this summer could be abortion. Trump, who has fielded questions about the issue by taking credit for the US Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, has avoided being pinned down on whether he supports a federal ban on abortion rights and if so, after how many weeks of pregnancy he would want such a ban to take effect.
The former president has also privately blamed abortion hard-liners for the party’s lackluster 2022 midterm results.
Pence pushed back on that contention Saturday at a virtual tele-rally organized by the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.
“My former running mate has actually argued that overturning Roe v. Wade a year ago today cost us seats in the 2022 midterms,” he said. “Where women and men that were standing for office stood without apology for the right to life, expressed the principle and the compassion, didn’t shy away from it, and then also talked about all the other issues that we’re struggling with under the failed policies of the Biden administration, those candidates did very well.”
Pence also spoke Saturday at an anti-abortion rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to mark the first anniversary of the Dobbs decision, saying the ruling “gave America a new beginning for life.”
On Friday, the former vice president applied pressure on Trump and others who have dodged the question of a national abortion ban, including Haley, calling on the GOP field to support a federal prohibition at 15 weeks.
“Every Republican candidate for president should support a ban on abortions before 15 weeks as a minimum nationwide standard,” Pence said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, another Trump critic in the 2024 race, said he would sign a federal abortion ban but did not specify how many weeks into a pregnancy he would want such a prohibition to take effect.
DeSantis, Trump’s top-polling rival, made only brief mention of the Florida measure he had signed banning most abortions in the state after six weeks. (The law is yet to take effect amid a separate ongoing legal challenge before the state Supreme Court.)
But the Florida governor leaned into other cultural clashes, touting his state as a “citadel of freedom.” He pointed to a state law banning certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom and dug in on his feud with Disney, which DeSantis and GOP allies have targeted for retaliation since the company publicly opposed the law critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.”
“We oppose the sexualization of children. We will do battle with anybody who seeks to rob our children of their innocence. And on those principles, there will be no compromise,” the governor said. “We will fight the woke corporations.”
This story has been updated with additional information.