Republicans try to win over religious conservatives in Des Moines

Guests of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Dinner gather around the food provided at the event on Sept. 19.

Alex Hanson

Just shy of four months until Iowa’s precinct caucuses, Republican candidates for president flocked to the state once again this weekend — this time trying to win over a crucial chunk of the vote: Christian conservatives.

About 1,500 religious conservatives packed into the Paul R. Knapp Animal Learning Center at the Iowa State Fairgrounds to hear from the candidates — all of whom lashed out Planned Parenthood, defended religious freedom and promised not to abide by the Iran nuclear deal if elected president.

Religious conservatives in the state make up more than a third of caucus-goers.

All eyes were on several different candidates at this point in the presidential cycle. Donald Trump, of course, has dominated the polls this summer. Scott Walker, the once-frontrunner in Iowa, has struggled in the polls recently. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum have won the past two caucuses. Finally, Bobby Jindal is widely known as one of the most religious Republicans in the race.

Trump, it seemed, wanted acknowledgment from the crowd that he still had a chance at their vote.

“I brought my Bible,” were Trump’s first words. “See, I’m better than you thought.”

His argument didn’t stop there.

“I also brought my confirmation picture,” he said holding up the photo. “No one can believe it. Nobody believes this. What went wrong?” “I’m a Christian. I’m a Presbyterian. Do you believe it?”

Trump then addressed the news story that has been following him since Thursday — not correcting a New Hampshire man at his rally who asked Trump what he would do about Muslims in the United States, including President Obama, or “our current president, who is one,” the man said.

On stage in Des Moines, the billionaire businessman read a series of tweets he made before flying to Iowa. One person asked if he is “morally” obligated to defend President Obama whenever something bad is said about him. Another asked if Obama would come to his defense if something bad were said about Trump.

“This can only happen to me, the press is going crazy and they all wanted to see me,” Trump said. “For the first time in my life, I got in trouble for not saying anything. I didn’t say anything. I was in big trouble, all over the place — CNN, Fox, CBS, every newscast it was the biggest story. I even beat out the Pope, on every single one. The only time I’ll ever beat the Pope.”

A CNN/ORC poll released Sunday morning showed Trump losing ground, but still ahead in the Republican race. Trump had support from 24 percent of voters nationwide, but former HP CEO Carly Fiorina went up 12 points from the last poll, with 15 percent support.

Jindal was not impressed later in the evening, sticking to his guns, as he has over the past week, attacking Trump and his campaign.

“He hasn’t read the Bible,” Jindal said. “He’s not in the Bible. He only reads books he’s in. Donald Trump is a narcissist that believes in nothing but himself.”

Skepticism of Trump’s faith has been brewing for months following comments he made at The Family Leadership Summit, which took place in July at Stephens Auditorium in Ames. There, also in front of a very religious crowd, Trump said he could not recall ever having to ask God for forgiveness and made a joke about communion.

Aside from the Trump bashing, Jindal gave a fiery speech criticizing his own party in Washington, calling Republican leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell head of the “surrender caucus” and saying they are “useless” if they are not going to stand up for conservative principles.

“I am actually angrier with the Republicans in Washington, D.C., than I am with the Democrats,” Jindal said. “We’ve got a choice right now between honest socialists — and let’s give Bernie Sanders credit, let’s give the left credit, at least they tell us they’re socialists — our choice is between honest socialists and lying conservatives.”

Jindal said he wishes Republicans in Washington had “half the courage” as Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and President Obama.

“I am so tired of these Republicans who say one thing at election time and do another thing when they get elected,” Jindal said. “They refuse to fight against amnesty, they refuse to fight against Obamacare, they refuse to stand up and defund Planned Parenthood, they refuse to stop this Iran deal.

“Folks, if the Republican Party can’t stand and win on our pro-life principles, what good is the Republican Party? All they do is wave the white flag and surrender.”

Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas and a Tea Party darling, was last to speak but easily got the biggest applauses throughout this speech. Just the mention of his name in his introduction received a standing ovation.

“We understand our country is in crisis,” Cruz said. “We’re bankrupting our kids and grandkids, our constitutional rights are under assault from Washington like never before and America has receded from leadership in the world.”

Despite that, Cruz said America is waking up.

“We’re seeing an awakening sweeping this country, and I want everyone to look forward,” Cruz said.

He went through a long list of items on his agenda for his first week in office: repeal every executive order under Obama; investigate Planned Parenthood; “instruct” federal agencies to stop persecuting religious Americans; “rip to shreds” the Iran nuclear deal; move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; repeal “every word” of Obamacare; end Common Core educational standards; “take on the EPA; pass tax reform and abolish the IRS; “rebuild” the U.S. military; secure the border and end sanctuary cities.

“I promise you today, help is on the way,” Cruz said.

Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who won the Iowa Caucus during his first presidential campaign in 2008, stuck to his usual religious message — ardently defending religious freedom and blasting the Obama administration.

He called out Obama for his nomination of the first openly gay Army Secretary.

“Seven years ago, we didn’t think that a qualification for secretary of the Army was his sexual orientation,” Huckabee said. “We now have a secretary of the Army based on homosexuality, not based on military capability.”

At a press availability earlier in the afternoon, Cruz said picking someone based on sexual orientation was wrong, but said he will wait it out and give the nominee a “fair assessment” to see if he is qualified.

Huckabee continued to show support for Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. He also passionately called for defending the unborn, saying defunding Planned Parenthood is not enough, and as president he would invoke the Fifth and 14th Amendment to call for due process rights for unborn children.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who narrowly won the caucus in 2012 after traveling to all 99 Iowa counties, said once again that he has completed the “Full Grassley” this election cycle, and called on Iowans for support again leading up to February’s caucus.

“You did your job four years ago,” Santorum said. “You didn’t listen to the national polls. I was at 2 percent in the national polls a week before the Iowa caucuses [in 2012].”

When speaking about the Iran deal, Santorum reminded those in attendance that he brought sanctions against Iran when he was in the U.S. Senate, but called the current deal a bad idea for the United States and Israel.

“This is suicide,” Santorum said about the Iran deal negotiated by the Obama administration and other world powers.

Walker, the current governor of Wisconsin, said he is ready to be president on day one because of the experience he has getting things done in Wisconsin’s executive branch. He touted defunding Planned Parenthood years ago in the state, and said he’ll only appoint judges who defend the constitution.“No more, no less,” he said.

The CNN poll released Sunday morning was bad news for Walker. After a big July, which had him in double digits in the polls, Walker had less than 1 percent in the new poll released several days after last week’s debate.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who spoke in Ames earlier in the day, and former New York Gov. George Pataki were also in attendance. Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Ben Carson were not present at the event, instead opting for a pre-recorded video message or a surrogate speaker on their behalf.

Several Iowa officials — U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, U.S. Reps. David Young and Steve King, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa House Speaker-elect Linda Upmeyer — also spoke at the event.

Many of the same candidates will surely be back in the state many times before the caucuses, which are scheduled for Feb. 1, 2016. The Iowa Republican Party is also planning a ‘Growth and Opportunity Party’ on Halloween. Fiorina, Walker, Santorum, Jindal, Bush, Cruz, Paul, Rubio, Graham and Huckabee have all confirmed their attendance.