Field of presidential candidates faces crowd of Christians

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, right, laughs during an interview with Tucker Carlson on July 14, 2023, at the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Republican presidential candidates worked to appeal to about 2,000 evangelical Christians Friday at a Des Moines conference – in some cases despite critical questioning in on-stage interviews by conservative commentator Tucker Carlson.

Carlson wrangled with former Vice President Mike Pence on his position that the U.S. should continue to support Ukraine with military equipment and money. He drew more applause than former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson when he proclaimed he had never received a COVID-19 vaccine and he pressed Hutchinson on his veto of a bill restricting gender-affirming health care for minors.

Abortion was not a central topic, even though the event featured Gov. Kim Reynolds signing restrictive abortion legislation on stage.

Most of the candidates praised Reynolds, but not all agreed Iowa’s law should be the national standard.

Pence said he heartily supports recently passed abortion laws in Iowa and other states, but he encouraged all the candidates in the field to endorse a federal 15-week abortion ban. “I believe it’s supported by a decisive majority of the American people,” he said.

Pence said as president, he would work every day to get a 15-week minimum abortion law enacted into law and “enshrined in the laws of the land.” 

Ron DeSantis pledged to be a “pro-life president” during his interview, touting the six-week ban that he signed into state law as Florida governor. 

“I don’t think Rome was built in a day, I think it’s gonna take time to make progress in some parts of the country,” he said. “But as president, I will be somebody who will use the bully pulpit to support governors like Kim Reynolds when she’s got a bill and other states as they advance the cause of life.” 

Hutchinson commended Reynolds from the stage but told reporters afterward that other states can set their own standards. “But what’s been proposed at the national level of 15 weeks with the exceptions that I’ve talked about, is a place that we might be able to arrive at a consensus around in this country, very similar to what the standard is in Europe,” he said.

The conference was hosted by the Family Leader, a religious conservative organization that has long played a significant role in GOP presidential politics. 

Some audience members said the person they were most excited to see wasn’t a presidential candidate. “Yeah, I mean, you know, obviously Tucker — there’s a lot of speculation on what’s going on in his little world. It’s nice to see him be able to do what he does well,” Linda Matkovich of West Des Moines said. 

Some have suggested Carlson might run for president. Matkovich seemed surprised by the idea, but added, “He’d get a lot of votes.”

Former President Donald Trump, the national frontrunner in polls, did not attend the event. Earlier this week, he drew a rebuke from Vander Plaats for criticizing Reynolds in a social media post for saying she would remain neutral in the caucus campaign.

“I opened up the Governor position for Kim Reynolds, & when she fell behind, I ENDORSED her, did big Rallies, & she won. Now, she wants to remain ‘NEUTRAL,’” Trump complained.

Vander Plaats responded on Twitter that “going after Iowa’s very popular Governor @IAGovernor is not smart.”

Reynolds sat  in the front row of the auditorium with Ron DeSantis’ wife, Casey, and Vander Plaats  during the Florida governor’s remarks. 

Event attendee Candace Shuey of Cedar Falls said she had already decided she was going to vote for Trump, but she comes to the event every year. She said she also supports Reynolds, but sided with Trump on the question of endorsements. “She should have endorsed Trump,” she said.

Jodi Wiegand, a teacher from Marshalltown, said Trump would make a good president, if he would refrain from actions like his social media remarks towards Reynolds.. 

Wiegand said of Trump, “If he could just keep his mouth shut and be the president I think he would be great.”

Here are some highlights from the candidates’ speeches:

Tim Scott

With a large screen beaming “PRINCIPLE OVER POLITICS” behind him, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott was the first presidential candidate to take the stage at the 2023 Family Leadership Summit. 

Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott, right, talks to Tucker Carlson at the Family Leadership Summit on July 14, 2023 in Des Moines. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Politics were on the table within the first minutes, Scott broke down his disagreements with President Joe Biden’s strategies in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and continued to share his thoughts on the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“I think one of the failures of Biden has been his inability to articulate America’s national vital interest in the conflict, or the genocide in Ukraine,” Scott said in his one-on-one conversation with Carlson. 

The conversation quickly shifted to the U.S.-Mexico border, an issue Scott said is the number one risk to America.

After Carlson suggested increased tariffs to hold Mexico accountable for fentanyl entering the U.S., Scott responded that the U.S. should use every tool available to stop fentanyl, no exceptions. 

Scott said as president, he would enforce border policies by reallocating funds recently allocated to hire 87,000 IRS agents, and using the funds to defend the border. 

“As president of the United States, I would sign my legislation and divert the resources from the IRS to the border so we can secure the border,” Scott said. 

The money Scott referenced was approved last year by Democrats in a climate change and health care package. A 10-year plan from the IRS listed over half the money going toward enforcement activities by focusing on “segments of taxpayers with complex issues and complex returns where audit rates are minimal today, such as those related to large partnerships, large corporations, and high-income and high-wealth individuals.”

“We can stop fentanyl from crossing over our Southern border, by closing our Southern border,” Scott said of finishing the border wall.

“Take the billions of dollars, and put them where America’s security needs are first, which starts with our Southern border,” Scott said.

Carlson asked Scott how appealing to donors plays into his campaign, to which Scott said he has not raised as much as he would like. 

“I like to hear they’re all flocking to me,” Scott said of financial support of his campaign. “I wish they would go out and write the check because I haven’t seen that yet.”

Mike Pence

Carlson’s conversation with Pence focused largely around Ukraine, and Pence’s role on Jan. 6, 2021, a common topic of discussion in Pence’s campaign so far. 

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Family Leadership Summit on July 14, 2023 in Des Moines. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich)

Pence garnered a “boo” from part of the audience when he spoke on Ukraine, “My belief is that it is in the interest of the United States of America to continue to give the Ukrainian military the resources that they need to repel the Russian invasion and restore their sovereignty,” he said.

Carlson suggested Pence was promoting religious discrimination by supporting Ukraine, stating clergy members have been arrested. Pence, who said he met with a Christian leader in his recent visit to Kyiv, assured Carlson that Christians were not being persecuted. 

“Other than the sanctity of life, there’s no higher priority in my life and preserving the freedom of religion in America and championing religious liberty around the world,” Pence said.

On the Jan. 6 events, Pence said, “All I know for sure, having lived through it, is that it was a tragic day. I’ve never used the word ‘insurrection’ in the last two years. It was a riot that took place at the Capitol that day.”

Pence supports holding those who unlawfully entered the Capitol that day accountable, as well as other rioters. 

“It’s important that we hold those accountable who perpetrated acts of violence and vandalism in our nation’s Capitol, but also, I’m still waiting for equal vigor and equal prosecutions to be brought on those that brought hundreds of BLM riots to cities across America.”

Carlson suggested America get rid of electronic voting machines. “I would certainly be open to that,” Pence responded. “But what I believe, Tucker, is that states govern elections. States ought to conduct our elections.”

“If I’m elected president of the United States, I promise you I will fight every day to restore public confidence in elections in this country,” Pence said. 

Asa Hutchinson

Carlson grilled former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on his veto of legislation in 2021 to restrict gender-affirming care for transgender minors. 

Hutchinson argued for parental rights.  “I believe that parents ought to be in control. And I also believe in the Constitution. I believe that God created two genders, and that there should not be any confusion on your gender. But if there is confusion, then parents ought to be the one that guides the children,” he said.

Tucker Carlson laughs as Republican presidential candidate Asa Hutchinson speaks July 14, 2023 at the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines. (Photo by Jay Waagmeester/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

He said he would not have signed legislation allowing transgender surgery for minors because “no parents should be able to consent to that permanent change.”

Carlson, however, argued that some gender-affirming care, such as hormone therapy, causes permanent damage — an assertion most mainstream medical professionals dispute.

Hutchinson disagreed that hormone therapy amounted to a permanent change and stressed that the bill was unconstitutional.  He said he opposes schools “pushing transgenderism” and believes schools should have to tell parents if a child questions his or her gender.

Carlson also asked Hutchinson how many COVID-19 vaccines he took and drew applause from the audience when Carlson said he was unvaccinated.

Hutchinson said he had been vaccinated and that he encouraged others in town halls to do likewise — but he said he refused to close businesses, he reopened schools before other states and his administration joined in suing the Biden administration against vaccine mandates for National Guard and other military service members.

He also disagreed that the U.S. should send the military to secure the Southern U.S. border, saying he believes it’s important to project strength to China from the Philippines in support of Taiwan and to Europe in light of Russian aggression in Ukraine. “And so the military has a lot of responsibility,” he said.

Carlson interjected:  “What responsibility is more important than protecting our own borders?”

Hutchinson tersely asked for the opportunity to finish his answer and added he believes the military is “trained to kill people” and has a different mission than law enforcement. “We utilize the National Guard but our regular military, I hope we don’t have to use them at the border, that we can solve the problem without them,” he said.

He told reporters afterward that he believed he won over some Iowans. “I think I gain in terms of Iowa. And, you know, there’s some candidates that chose not to appear here today. Some people didn’t want to be interviewed by Tucker Carlson,” he said.

Nikki Haley

The former South Carolina governor, who then served as ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration, said she would work to reduce government spending and overhaul certain federal agencies if elected. 

Nikki Haley takes the stage at the Family Leadership Summit, July 14 in Des Moines (Photo by Jay Waagmeester)

“The American people don’t trust our intelligence agencies, they don’t trust our Department of Justice,” Haley said. “So you can’t just replace the person at the top, you’ve got to go through and really look at gutting those agencies and getting out a lot of that senior management.”

On government spending, Haley rebuked both Democrats and Republicans for deficit spending over the years that’s led to more than $31 trillion in national debt. She pledged that if elected president, she would veto any government funding legislation that doesn’t return federal spending to pre-COVID-19 levels. 

That benchmark for spending has been a rallying cry this year for conservative members of the U.S. House Republican Party, though defense hawks have criticized that for shortchanging national defense accounts. 

Haley said during the 25-minute interview that instead of meeting with the nation’s governors once a year, she would meet with them quarterly. 

“I will meet with my governors once every quarter with the sole goal of — get the power that’s at the federal government, push it down to the states,” Haley said. “That’s how you empower people is pushing it down…that can be education, that can be health care, that can be benefits.” 

Haley also spoke in detail about the country’s health care system, including the lack of support for people with mental illness. Haley criticized doctors for what she says is a tendency to over prescribe medication and for a lack of universal telehealth services.  

“We have a broken health care system and we have to make sure that we completely tear it up from the insurance companies, to the hospitals, to the doctors, to the (pharmacy benefit managers), to the pharmaceutical companies, because right now …  doctors love to just prescribe,” Haley said. “But doctors are never judged on the outcomes.”   

Health care providers, she said, should be judged less on how many patients they see in a given day and more on whether those patients get better. The cost of health care should be much more transparent with patients involved in conversations about billing, instead of just hospitals and insurance companies, she said. 

“So we will make it all transparent — make those insurance companies have to show us what they’re doing, make those hospitals show us what they’re doing, make these doctors have to say what they’re doing in the outcomes and let’s make sure pharmaceutical companies suddenly have to show us what they do,” Haley said. 

Ron DeSantis

DeSantis, who spoke last, said he would name a new FBI director if he were elected president, and said it’s important that presidents-elect be ready to nominate all of the people they need in the executive branch on their first day in office. 

“I believe Article Two of the Constitution means the president has the executive authority. We just say these bureaucrats somehow can’t be held accountable. I disagree with that,” DeSantis said. “I think you can fire them.” 

“If we have an FBI agent going to harass a pro-life activist, like they did Mark Houck and send a SWAT team, I’d fire them immediately. When you have the FBI colluding with big tech to censor dissent, I would fire those people,” he added. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke July 14, 2023 at the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

DeSantis said he would work to disseminate federal agencies throughout the country, including moving parts of the Department of Justice outside the Washington, D.C. area. 

And, DeSantis said, his administration would look for anyone who should have been charged with a crime and ensure they are taken to trial. Others, who have been convicted, will have a pathway to request pardons from his administration. 

“Part of what you need to do — if you have a two-tiered system of justice — you need to make sure if there’s some people that got away that shouldn’t have, they need to face the music,” he said “And if there are other people that are getting targeted through abuse of government, then there needs to be use of the pardon power.” 

On foreign policy and the war in Ukraine, DeSantis said, if the United States is going to support one country in a conflict — either through aid dollars or by sending troops — the leaders making that decision should “have a concrete idea of what you’re trying to achieve.”

DeSantis said his goal for the conflict would be “a sustainable peace in Europe.”

Vivek Ramaswamy

“I’m the first millennial to run for U.S. president as a Republican,” Vivek Ramaswamy told attendees, continuing his campaign of appealing to young Republicans. 

Ramaswamy, a 37-year-old businessman and investor, said he believes in the power of family, his pride in being an American and his stance on war in Ukraine.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, right, laughs during an interview with Tucker Carlson on July 14, 2023, at the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Ramaswamy said he has differentiated himself in the field by being the first candidate to propose a plan on ending the conflict in Ukraine that advances American interests.

“If you want someone to fix a problem, you don’t turn over the keys to somebody who actually broke the thing in the first place,” he said of solving the conflict in Ukraine.

Ramaswamy suggested a deal to end the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, which included allowing Ukraine sovereignty, Russia exiting a military partnership with China and removing Russia military influence from several countries. 

He continued and spoke on division in the United States, and, after sharing an anecdote of meeting students in a school in the south side of Chicago, told attendees, “I don’t think we are nearly as divided as we are taught to be.”

Ramaswamy said a candidate will stand out if they are pro-American, and whichever candidate can stand out will win in a landslide. 

“I don’t talk about Republicans anymore. I try not to use the word, not because it’s a bad word, but because it doesn’t mean anything.”

In addition to appealing to a younger audience, Ramaswamy tried to ignite patriotism in the crowd of 2,000.

“I don’t think the dividing line in our country is between Republicans and Democrats,” Ramaswamy said. “I think it’s between those of us who are pro-American, who believe in the ideals of this country, and those of us who aren’t, and it exists in this country.” 

Biden will not run for president, if Ramaswamy wins the Republican nomination, according to the first-time politician. 

“I think we have an opportunity to do in this country in 2024 what Ronald Reagan did in 1980: deliver a landslide election, called the bluff on the division, much of it is artificial.”

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine.

Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.

Jay Waagmeester
Jay Waagmeester

Jay is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch intern. Jay is based in Ames and is currently a senior majoring in journalism and marketing at Iowa State University. He has interned at New Century Press and contributed to the Iowa State Daily.