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Republican presidential candidates vie for the influential evangelical Christian vote

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Many of the 2024 Republican presidential candidates will be in Iowa tomorrow. They'll be speaking to a large group of the state's ever-important conservative evangelical Christian voters. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds plans to use the stage to sign a restrictive abortion ban into law - this as Republicans vying for the White House try to appeal to this influential base. From Des Moines, Clay Masters reports.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Abortion bans have got to go. Hey, hey. Ho, ho.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Hundreds of protesters packed the Iowa Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday morning as the Republican-led legislature prepared to pass a six-week abortion ban. Marie Fitch was there to show support for the bill, passed in this marathon of a one-day special legislative session.

MARIE FITCH: People say, oh, you can't be a one-issue voter. Oh, yeah, you can.

MASTERS: Fitch is a Republican and plans to participate in the 2024 Iowa caucuses. She says for her, it all comes down to a candidate's strict stance on abortion.

FITCH: I don't have my mind made up. What I want to hear is that they are honestly pro-life and intend to protect the least of our brothers and sisters, the babies in the womb who have a right to life.

MASTERS: While evangelical Christians were outnumbered by protesters opposing the bill, they make up a large subset of Republican voters here who can help propel a campaign to a victory on caucus night. But not every clergy member who showed up supports the six-week abortion ban when many don't even know they're pregnant. John Chaplin (ph) is a local pastor with the United Church of Christ. He calls the legislation disturbing.

JOHN CHAPLIN: It's as if the legislators are taking their own personal religious views and trying to transfer it onto the general public when the general public, 61% of Iowans, favor safe abortion.

MASTERS: Chaplin is referring to a March poll in The Des Moines Register. While supporting strict abortion bans could help a politician in a primary, it could be a vulnerability in a general election. At a campaign stop in Iowa last week, Donald Trump took credit for overturning the guaranteed right to an abortion, reminding the crowd that he appointed three justices to the Supreme Court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: They ruled against Roe v. Wade, giving pro-lifers a tremendous power to negotiate...

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: ...And moving this issue back to the states.

MASTERS: Trump enjoys a great deal of support among evangelical voters in Iowa. His former vice president, Mike Pence, is running against him and is embracing Trump's record to try and siphon some of that support away from him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: I couldn't be more proud to be part of the administration that appointed three of the justices that sent Roe v. Wade to the ash heap of history where it belongs. But I take issue with the former president and with others who have suggested that the Supreme Court only return that question to the states.

MASTERS: Pence will be among those attending The Family Leader summit in Des Moines. Bob Vander Plaats heads up this evangelical Christian group and is an influential kingmaker in Republican politics here. Vander Plaats endorsed Texas Senator Ted Cruz ahead of his caucus win over Trump in 2016.

BOB VANDER PLAATS: No one really saw Trump coming, so we always say Cruz got Trumped. This year, I think you have several candidates who are strong in conviction and who have the resources to go the distance.

MASTERS: Trump won't be at the summit this year, and it wouldn't have been that warm of a welcome if he was. This week Trump attacked Iowa's Governor Kim Reynolds for remaining neutral in the race. And while Vander Plaats praises Trump's first term in office, he says it's time for a new nominee.

VANDER PLAATS: There's no doubt Trump has a significant base here yet, and he'll be very difficult to beat. There's no doubt he'll be difficult to beat. But I believe his base is also his ceiling.

MASTERS: It certainly can't hurt these other politicians to have been onstage as Governor Reynolds signs the state's new six-week abortion ban, a photo op Trump won't have as he works to hold on to evangelical voters in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANALI SONG, "FATAL ATTRACTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.