DES MOINES, Iowa — The latest cattle call of GOP presidential contestants — sans former President Donald Trump — mainly maintained Iowa nice, a departure from last month’s first fiery primary debate and a similar Christian conservative event in July hosted by conservative talk show host lightning rod Tucker Carlson.
The 10 presidential candidates who appeared at Saturday’s Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Annual Fall Banquet and Presidential Town Hall took relatively few direct shots at their rivals. And there was no booing or hissing or shouting down of candidates from the crowd of 1,000-plus Iowa conservatives in attendance like there was at the August 23 debate in Milwaukee or at the mid-July Family Leadership Summit held in the same Iowa Events Center Hall as Saturday’s town hall.
Attendees seemed to heed Faith & Freedom Coalition founder and Chairman Ralph Reed’s admonishment to respectfully hear out the candidates and keep any criticisms to themselves.
The return to a little more sweetness and light had much to do with the mostly friendly questions posed to the presidential hopefuls by Reed and Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird, who divided up the 10-minute Q&A sessions. Candidates mostly trained their fire on on President Joe Biden, his far-left administration, and the woke cancel culture movement.
Reed did ask former Vice President Mike Pence about his comments earlier this month in which he questioned his former running mate’s conservative values.
“Should the new populism of the right seize and guide our party, the Republican Party we’ve long known will cease to exist and the fate of American freedom would be in doubt,” Pence said in a speech at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, a knock on Trump.
Pence confessed that he started out in politics in his younger years as a Democrat, a community organizer of sorts. His view changed in the “Reagan Revolution,” and he never looked back.
On Saturday, he aimed not only at Trump but others in the crowded field of GOP presidential candidates.
“There are many vying for your support in that Jan. 15 caucus that are walking away from those very timeless principles and ideals that have minted our party and defined our movement over the past 50 years,” Pence said. He added some of his fellow Republican contenders have turned their backs on American leadership in the world, a reference to Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Ohio biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy who, unlike Pence, are opposed to more U.S. military funding in Ukraine. It’s a position shared by a majority of Republicans.
Not surprisingly, many questions centered on faith and conservative values, particularly life issues in the post-Roe v. Wade era.
Reed asked DeSantis if he supported U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s block on promotions for senior U.S. military officials in protest of the Biden administration policy that provides travel allowances for service members and their dependents to cross state lines and have abortions.
“Yes. I support what he’s doing,” DeSantis said to applause. “What the Defense Department is doing is outside the law. They are breaking, violating the law by funding abortion tourism with tax dollars. And so when agencies do that the congress has to stand up and push back against it.”
“We have a limited amount of money in a defense budget. We’re running low on ammunition. Our recruiting is in the absolute gutter now and you’re funding abortion tourism? Is that really something that is helping to protect this country?” The Florida governor continued, adding that if he’s elected president the Pentagon policy will go “in the trash can where it belongs.”
DeSantis is running a distant second in the national polls and in Iowa, the site of the first 2024 presidential caucus on Jan. 15. Trump, who continues to dominate the Republican primary polls, sat out Saturday’s Faith & Freedom Coalition event, as he has other high profile cattle calls this summer.
The former president made headlines Saturday, regardless, telling NBC News’ Kristen Welker in an interview that he supports requiring mental competency tests for candidates, although he doesn’t believe age should be a disqualifying factor.
“I don’t think Biden is too old, but I think he is incompetent,” said Trump, 77, “And that’s a bigger problem.” Biden, quickly coming approaching 81, would be 82 upon entering his second term, should he win next November’s election.
Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has called for a competency test for elected officials 75 and older.
But it was the abortion question that dominated much of Haley’s time on the stage Saturday evening. She and Pence sparred at last month’s debate over the political realities of a 15-week federal abortion ban, which Pence supports. While Haley said she is “unapologetically pro-life,” she stood by her belief that getting the votes in Congress will be extremely difficult.
“No Republican president can anymore ban abortions than a Democrat president can ban their state laws. So my goal is how do we save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as possible,” she said.
Fellow Indian-American Ramaswamy, as he often has at candidate forums, generated the most applause in what turned out to be a mostly reserved crowd.
Bird asked Ramaswamy about his position on shutting down the FBI. The Iowa attorney general said she would rather see the troubled agency reformed, not dismantled.
“I don’t think reform of that agency is actually possible at this stage,” the 38-year-old political outsider said. “You cannot reform it. I think you have to shut it down.”
Speaking to reporters after his time on stage, Ramaswamy said he thinks it’s a mistake that the “incrementalists,” his word for many of his Republican opponents, believe they can simply fire FBI Director Christopher Wray and the problems will go away.
“They forget James Comey came before him and James Comey 2.0 will come after him,” he said. “That’s a false promise to the American people. You have to be willing to shut the thing down but also reorganize it in an intelligent way that improves the effectiveness while also battling the corruption.”
At a speech before the America First Policy Institute last week, Ramaswamy detailed his plans and legal justifications for shutting down several federal agencies and cutting 50 percent of the 2.2 million civil service workforce in his first year in office.
U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) won applause from the Hawkeye State crowd by declaring that he would make Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds’ universal school choice initiative the national model.
“When parents have a choice, the kids have the best chance of success,” said Scott, who also had to answer yet another question about his widely reported romantic life. The long-time bachelor “praised the living God” for his new girlfriend.
Scott and the super PAC that backs him have inundated the Iowa airwaves with millions of dollars in ads, helping him to a top 3 position in many Iowa caucus polls.
The candidates who did not make last month’s debate stage, and very likely won’t make the next debate on Sept. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Library in California, got the chance to make their case before the Faith & Freedom Coalition attendees. Conservative talk show host Larry Elder, Michigan businessman Perry Johnson, Texas pastor and a CEO Ryan Binkley, and former Texas congressman and CIA clandestine officer Will Hurd are barely breathing or flatlining in most polls.
Hurd made it through this event without getting booed off the stage. In late July, at the Iowa GOP’s annual Lincoln Dinner, the long-shot candidate touched a nerve when he took a shot at Trump.
“One of the things we need in our elected leaders: to tell the truth, even if it’s not popular, he said in the same Des Moines Events Center banquet room. Donald Trump is not running for president to make American great again. Donald Trump is not even running to represent the people that voted for him in 2016 and in 2020. Donald Trump is running for president to stay out of prison,” he said at the time.
The former president is defending himself against four criminal indictments as he campaigns for a return trip to the White House.
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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.