The crowd of Republican presidential candidates gathering in Des Moines on Saturday (Sept. 19) evening needs to address only a narrow band of issues, but they must say the right thing if they want to impress an influential bloc of caucusgoers.
“They’ve gotta strike three notes,” pastor and conservative activist Jamie Johnson said. “They have to speak on life, they have to speak on marriage and they have to speak on religious liberty.”
Eight GOP hopefuls will appear at the fundraiser banquet sponsored by the Faith & Freedom Coalition, one of Iowa’s leading socially conservative political organizations: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Donald Trump and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
At least four of those candidates — Cruz, Huckabee, Jindal and Santorum — are explicitly courting Iowa’s sizable bloc of socially conservative evangelical Christians as their primary base of support in the caucuses. Two of them, Huckabee and Santorum, are previous caucus winners whose victories depended in large part on activists like those who will attend Saturday’s forum.
According to Johnson, who until recently was a senior director for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign in Iowa, the candidates must establish their conservative credentials by voicing opposition to legal abortion even in cases of rape or incest, give a “full-throated” endorsement of one-man, one-woman marriage and condemn the U.S Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
The Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition forum will take place at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. Each candidate will be given five minutes to talk and then face 15 minutes of questions.
Here are five key questions heading into the event.
1. How will an evangelical crowd receive Trump?
Just as at Wednesday night’s debate in California, much attention will again focus on Trump, the front-runner in Iowa and national polls.
His appearance at a social conservatives forum in Ames in July will be remembered for the insults he hurled at U.S. Sen. John McCain. But the candidate also caused a stir among the largely Christian crowd when he said he had never asked God for forgiveness and seemed to make light of taking communion.
That’s problematic for a bloc of voters explicitly looking for candidates who express a biblical worldview, said Bill Tvedt, an Oskaloosa pastor who’s active in conservative politics.
“There are those who are — how can I say it? — Christian in name more than they are truly solid church-going, Bible-studying strong evangelical types,” Tvedt said. “I think Donald Trump has been to church, but I’m not sure he has real deep convictions like a lot of evangelical Christians would have.”
On Saturday, Trump is likely to face exactly that concern when he again appears before a largely evangelical crowd. And, given his July comments, attendees may be looking for him to address even more directly how his faith informs his political views.
2. How do the other candidates approach Trump?
Wednesday’s debate provided some clues as to how candidates might wrench the spotlight away from Trump, who has dominated media coverage of the race in recent weeks.
At the debate, candidates including Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina — neither of whom will be in Iowa on Saturday night — needled Trump with criticism and came away unscathed. Saturday will be the first chance to see how candidates wield those tools in a multi-candidate forum in Iowa.
Jindal in particular has boldly attacked Trump in recent days, calling him a “madman,” a “narcissist” and an “egomaniac” while criticizing his business record and belittling his military expertise. Will he continue that message in Iowa on Saturday, with Trump in the same building?
Tvedt, the Oskaloosa pastor, chided the debate’s format for coming off more like an episode of Jerry Springer than a presidential candidate forum. On Saturday, he said, he hopes candidates will draw distinctions between themselves while maintaining a bit more dignity.
3. Where is evangelical support coalescing?
Socially conservative and evangelical Christians have long been a potent constituency in the Iowa caucuses, and could sway the 2016 contest if they fall in behind a single candidate.
In the most recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Iowa Poll, conducted in late August, 39 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers said “Christian conservative” was the faction that described them best, nearly doubling those identifying themselves as “business-oriented establishment Republicans” (22 percent) or “Tea Party activists” (21 percent).
Several candidates, though, are vying for Christian conservatives’ support.
A gathering of more than a thousand such voters may provide clues on how that sorting process is going with a little over four months to go before caucus night.
Danny Carroll, a former Republican Party of Iowa chairman and longtime social conservative activist, said he’s seen movement recently toward Cruz’s candidacy, but is still waiting for a candidate to break out of the pack.
“Somebody needs to make the case that their rock-solid core convictions line up with the Christian conservative Republican,” Carroll said.
Results from the August poll suggest that finding a consensus candidate is a priority for social conservatives.
About 77 percent of Christian conservative respondents said they would be willing to support a candidate other than their top choice if it meant ensuring the community’s vote was not diluted among multiple candidates.
4. How will candidates differentiate themselves on religious freedom?
Government infringement on religious freedom has become a key concern among social conservatives and a frequent talking point among presidential candidates vying for their support.
That sentiment has heightened following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this summer legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide and especially since the jailing of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Candidates’ views on the significance of the Davis case may represent a litmus test for support from some Iowa conservatives, Johnson and others said.
According to Tamara Scott, Iowa’s Republican National Committeewoman, the Davis case represents a test of candidates’ views not only on religious freedom but also on constitutional law and the separation of powers.
“She’s not breaking the law; she’s upholding it,” Scott said of Davis. “It is a religious issue, but it’s a constitutional issue first. And she’s being asked — or forced — to not only go against her beliefs, but to do so in order to usurp the Constitution and the separation of branches.”
5. Will candidates endorse a government shutdown?
Candidates may also seek to distinguish themselves on another ongoing political issue: federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
Abortion opponents have long targeted the women’s health organization, which has been in the news recently following the release of videos that purport to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue.
The videos have inspired a new effort among congressional Republicans to cut federal funding for the organization, a move Republican candidates across the board have embraced. Such a move risks a government shutdown, however, since the defunding language could be included in a larger budget bill and would almost certainly face a veto from President Obama.
In Congress, leaders are discussing different avenues that might advance the goal of defunding Planned Parenthood while avoiding a politically damaging government shutdown. The extent to which candidates embrace or reject potential compromises could become key distinctions before an ardently anti-abortion audience.
“From candidates, we’re looking for someone who can honestly address this issue and have the courage not to apologize for it,” Scott said.
Jason Noble writes for The Des Moines Register.
Courtesy: USA Today via Religion News Service
Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Publication date: September 21, 2015