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First big event involving many GOP presidential candidates was hosted in Iowa

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, Iowa once again vote first when it holds its caucuses early next year. This past weekend, though, the first big multi-candidate event was hosted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. That's an organization of conservative Christian voters. The mix of candidates included former President Trump, who joined via livestream; former VP Mike Pence, who was there in person, as were a host of others, many of them names maybe you've never heard of. You have, though, heard of NPR's Don Gonyea, who was also there. He joins us now from Des Moines. Don, these events are often called cattle calls because there are a lot of participants. So who was there, and what did they focus on?

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Well, unsurprisingly, abortion was a common theme, with many candidates saying they would be the best on that big issue. So let's start with Trump. He's actually come under fire by some anti-abortion groups lately because he says it's up to states now to decide such things. Just leave it to the states. So he used this speech to remind people that he is the guy who deserves the credit for Roe v. Wade being gone in the first place.

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DONALD TRUMP: I faced down vile attacks to confirm our three great Supreme Court justices - Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

GONYEA: It's a sign the GOP is still figuring out how to message around abortion. And Mike Pence actually got in on it, too. On one hand, he praises Trump for his court appointees, but he also made it clear that he is the far tougher anti-abortion crusader. This clip is from a brief news conference he held at the event.

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MIKE PENCE: But I don't agree with the former president, who says this is a states-only issue. I mean, we've been given a new beginning for life in this country.

GONYEA: And let me note here, Pence is not yet officially a candidate. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who's also exploring running, was there. Remember, Scott is not that well-known in Iowa or around the country, and he's basically introducing himself. And he did so over the weekend in the style of a Baptist preacher.

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TIM SCOTT: If you believe that we should educate our children and not indoctrinate our kids, let me hear you say...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Amen.

SCOTT: If you believe we need a little more ABCs and a little less CRT, let me hear you scream. Hallelujah.

GONYEA: Let me also tell you who was not there. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had a conflict, as did former ambassador Nikki Haley. Other big-name potential candidates, like Chris Christie, weren't there either. So something felt like it was missing, but that did provide an opportunity for the unknowns who are running. And here's one example.

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VIVEK RAMASWAMY: I'm Vivek Ramaswamy. I'll tell you something. I was born in 1985. I'm 37 years old. I'm the first millennial to ever run for president as a Republican. Thank you. Thank you for that.

GONYEA: Ramaswamy is an entrepreneur and author who says the GOP needs to connect with young voters. He says he can do that and that a conservative message will work with those voters.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, Don, this is a contested primary - lots of candidates or potential candidates, as you point out. But Donald Trump loves to remind anyone who will listen that he is currently way, way, way ahead in the polls. So how does that affect the vibe at an event like this?

GONYEA: Let me just give you one example. At one point, Mike Pence was working the room - shaking hands, squeezing between tables, taking selfies with people like a real celebrity. But when you talk to people after their moment, their selfie with the former vice president, you get something like this from voter Connie Dianda of Mason City.

You said you're not a big fan.

CONNIE DIANDA: Yeah.

GONYEA: Just...

DIANDA: Because of what happened January 6. I mean, I felt like there was fraud in the election. I felt like he could have done something more on that day to support our president. And he didn't step up to the plate.

GONYEA: And that's really the Trump effect. You feel it in the room, the sense that this looks like a traditional, big campaign event, one where you've got lots of hopefuls. And traditionally, there'd be some buzz, people wondering if one of these candidates, somebody on the stage, might really impress or maybe break through and get some momentum. But you sure don't feel anything like that yet this year. I talked to retired farmer Ron Partlow, and he says he's got nothing against any of these other Republicans. But - well, just listen.

RON PARTLOW: We're going downhill. The whole country is going downhill. We lost ground the past three, four years. Yeah. We need Trump. We need somebody back in there to straighten this thing out.

GONYEA: So in the room, you really get this strong sense of the loyalty to Donald Trump. And that's not shocking. And I did find some people who were undecided. They're waiting to see. But mostly, you found people ready to stand by Trump through indictments, through what they see as unfair attacks in the media, through whatever may come down the pipe in the next, you know, coming months. And they express great pride at being on his side.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR's Don Gonyea in Des Moines. Don, thanks.

GONYEA: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.