Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida paused, appeared down after which advised a banquet corridor full of conservative Iowa Christians one thing that he had by no means earlier than mentioned in public: His spouse, Casey DeSantis, skilled a miscarriage a number of years in the past throughout her first being pregnant.
The couple, Mr. DeSantis defined on Friday at a discussion board for Republican presidential candidates hosted by an influential evangelical group, had been making an attempt to conceive earlier than taking a visit to Israel.
“We went to Ruth’s tomb in Hebron — Ruth, Chapter 4, Verse 13 — and we prayed,” Mr. DeSantis, citing Scripture, mentioned on the occasion in Des Moines. “We prayed loads to have a household, after which, lo and behold, we return to america and a bit time later we obtained pregnant. However sadly we misplaced that first child.”
The deeply private revelation — in response to a query concerning the significance of the nuclear household — was an surprising second for Mr. DeSantis, who’s normally tight-lipped about each his religion and his household life. On the marketing campaign path, he rotates via a restricted set of anecdotes about Ms. DeSantis and their three younger kids, in addition to his non secular beliefs. Nonetheless, on the Iowa occasion, he lingered solely briefly on his spouse’s miscarriage, calling it merely a “powerful factor” and a check of religion.
Mr. DeSantis, a Roman Catholic, is closely courting Iowa’s non secular proper, which has helped ship the state’s final three aggressive Republican presidential caucuses to candidates who wore their religion on their sleeves. White evangelical voters are prone to play a decisive function within the state’s Jan. 15 caucuses, the primary contest within the 2024 G.O.P. major, and so they usually flip to politicians who communicate the language of the church.
“It’s important to discuss authentically from the guts,” mentioned Terry Amann, a conservative pastor from Des Moines. “Anyone can cite Bible verses.”
If Mr. DeSantis has any hope of beating former President Donald J. Trump, the front-runner, who leads him by roughly 30 factors in Iowa polls, it lies in successful over conservative Christian voters whereas warding off the problem of Nikki Haley, the previous governor of South Carolina, who’s seen as extra reasonable.
A DeSantis victory in Iowa stays an extended shot, however Mr. Trump’s criticisms of the hard-line abortion restrictions favored by many evangelical voters in Iowa might have created a lane for the Florida governor to bolster his standing. The previous president has described a six-week abortion ban signed by Mr. DeSantis in Florida as “a horrible mistake.” Mr. Trump has blamed excessive positions on abortion for latest Republican losses on the polls and, trying to win over moderates within the common election, has prevented supporting a federal abortion ban. That has deeply disenchanted some evangelical leaders and voters who cheered him after his appointments to the Supreme Courtroom helped overturn Roe v. Wade.
“Trump has backed off his pro-life place,” mentioned Mike Demastus, who leads an evangelical church in Des Moines. “And that’s induced voters like myself to pause and be keen to take heed to different candidates.”
Mr. DeSantis is making an attempt to reap the benefits of issues like Mr. Demastus’s. As he opened his new Iowa marketing campaign headquarters exterior Des Moines on Saturday, the governor advised reporters that Mr. Trump’s feedback on abortion had been the true “mistake.” He had beforehand mentioned of Mr. Trump, throughout an interview with an Iowa radio station, that “all pro-lifers ought to know that he’s making ready to promote you out.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump stays immensely widespread with conservative Christians, and never solely due to his function in Roe’s demise. Mr. Trump moved america Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a problem of deep significance to many evangelicals. He’s additionally credited for his anti-immigration insurance policies and for a robust financial system throughout his presidency, reflecting the truth that many non secular voters have political issues past their religion.
Even most of the evangelical voters who assist Mr. DeSantis are deeply grateful to the previous president.
“The reversal of Roe v. Wade — I didn’t ever assume that might occur in my lifetime, and he did that,” Jerry Buseman, 54, a retired college administrator from Hampton, Iowa, mentioned of Mr. Trump.
Now, the DeSantis and Trump campaigns are engaged in a back-and-forth to win over religion leaders and voters. Evangelicals are the one largest non secular group amongst Iowa Republicans, accounting for greater than a 3rd of their ranks, according to Pew Research Center. To this point, polls counsel Mr. Trump is successful the race for his or her votes. The previous president had the assist of 51 p.c of white evangelical voters, in contrast with 30 p.c for Mr. DeSantis, in keeping with a September ballot by CBS Information and YouGov. It’s a serious shift from 2016, when evangelicals flocked to Ted Cruz slightly than to Mr. Trump, serving to the Republican senator from Texas win the caucuses that yr.
“Trump has already confirmed himself to have a spine,” mentioned Brad Sherman, a pastor and state legislator who has endorsed Mr. Trump, though he mentioned he wished the previous president would take a “stronger stand” in opposition to abortion. “He’s proven that he’ll do what he says.”
Like Mr. Sherman, many Iowans backing Mr. Trump appear keen to forgive his more moderen feedback on abortion. Solely 40 p.c of Trump supporters agreed that he was proper to criticize six-week abortion bans, according to an October poll by The Des Moines Register, NBC News and Mediacom.
Alex Latcham, the Trump marketing campaign’s early-states director, mentioned the previous president had gotten outcomes on points that had been “the highest priorities” for evangelical voters for many years. In his Des Moines workplace, Mr. Latcham mentioned, he retains a map of Iowa exhibiting the areas of greater than 100 non secular leaders who’ve endorsed Mr. Trump.
“There’s loads of time, however proper now it’s Trump’s to lose,” mentioned Steve Scheffler, the president of the Iowa Religion and Freedom Coalition, who’s staying impartial via the caucuses.
To counter Mr. Trump’s reputation, Mr. DeSantis held his first official marketing campaign rally in Could at a church exterior Des Moines, the place a gaggle of pastors prayed over him. He has rolled out his personal endorsements from greater than 100 non secular leaders across the state. Earlier than every Republican presidential debate, he has invited a pastor to hope for him and his spouse within the inexperienced room backstage. His marketing campaign holds a month-to-month video name for pastors. And in contrast to Mr. Trump, he has attended a number of church companies in Iowa, together with alongside the Iowa evangelical chief Bob Vander Plaats, who hosted Mr. DeSantis on the discussion board the place he mentioned his spouse’s miscarriage.
By no means Again Down, an excellent PAC supporting the DeSantis marketing campaign, has produced commercials that accuse Mr. Trump of a “betrayal of the pro-life motion,” name into query his assist for Israel and criticize his assaults on Kim Reynolds, the favored Iowa governor who has endorsed Mr. DeSantis and has additionally signed a six-week abortion ban.
”DeSantis has achieved an impressive job networking with evangelicals,” mentioned David Kochel, a veteran Iowa political strategist. “He’s operating the marketing campaign the proper method. The issue is he’s doing it in opposition to somebody who has already delivered for evangelical voters.”
Ms. Haley, the opposite prime runner-up within the race, who’s now tied with Mr. DeSantis in lots of Iowa polls, doesn’t seem like pursuing the state’s religion leaders as aggressively, and her extra measured method of speaking about abortion has turned off many evangelicals.
Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for the Haley marketing campaign, highlighted Ms. Haley’s “steadfast assist for Israel” as a purpose for evangelical voters to get behind her. And she or he pointed to Ms. Haley’s recent endorsement by Marlys Popma, a outstanding anti-abortion activist in Iowa.
For Mr. DeSantis, a scarcity of folksy appeal should still be a problem in Iowa, regardless of his efforts to be extra private with evangelical voters.
Evangelical voters “wish to see the guts,” mentioned Sam Brownback, a conservative Christian and former Republican senator from Kansas whose personal presidential marketing campaign did not take off in 2008. “They wish to see what you actually are inside.”
The final three Republicans to win contested caucuses — former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Mr. Cruz — all talked simply about their religion. (None of them captured the nomination.)
Mr. DeSantis, who has been criticized as stilted on the marketing campaign path, isn’t inbuilt that mould. As a substitute, he’s counting on his document as Florida governor, which incorporates, along with the six-week abortion ban, legal guidelines to limit the rights of transgender folks and to restrict discussions of sexuality in colleges.
When a reporter requested why he was a greater match for Iowa’s evangelicals than Mr. Trump — a thrice-married former Democrat — Mr. DeSantis replied that he was “higher consultant of their values.”
“I’ve a greater document of truly delivering on my guarantees and combating vital fights on behalf of kids, on behalf of households and on behalf of spiritual liberty,” he mentioned on Saturday at a espresso store in Ottumwa, Iowa.
Heidi Sokol, 51, a Republican voter who teaches at a Christian college in Clear Lake, Iowa, mentioned she wasn’t bothered that Mr. DeSantis spoke way more about coverage than about his private religion when she noticed him communicate at a Des Moines church this fall.
“We’re not hiring the president to be our pastor,” Ms. Sokol mentioned.
Ruth Igielnik contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.; Ann Hinga Klein from Ottumwa; and Chris Cameron from Newton, Iowa.