The Republicans battling to be their party’s alternative to former President Donald Trump came together Friday for a different kind of cattle call, bringing personal and at times emotional stories to what an influential Iowa Christian organization billed as a friendly conversation.
Three candidates — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — sat side-by-side at a festive Thanksgiving table for a “family discussion” in Des Moines Friday. Trump did not attend, though he was invited.
The candidates also shared emotional stories during the unusual forum that offered a more collegial, intimate conversation, moderated by Family Leader President and CEO Bob Vander Plaats.
All three connected their opposition to legalized abortion to difficulties they had having children. DeSantis talked about his wife Casey’s miscarriage and its impact on them. Ramaswamy gestured for his three-year-old son to join him onstage after detailing how his wife, Apoorva, thought she had suffered a second miscarriage.
Haley mentioned the difficulty she had getting pregnant. Vander Plaats later asked her to address her stance on abortion, which calls for consensus on the issue.
Haley has urged Republicans to not push for a national abortion ban with next to no chance of passing Congress. But when pressed by Vander Plaats on whether she would have signed a new law banning most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy as governor, as Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds did this year, she said yes.
“Whatever the people decide,” Haley said.
As governor, she signed the most conservative abortion bill South Carolina Republicans were able to pass through both chambers at the time, restricting the procedure at 20 weeks.
Friday’s event deviated from more testy moments on the campaign trail, a welcome change for many of the voters who attended.
Glenn Gibisch of Downers Grove, Illinois, was looking forward to the forum, preferring its approach over the debates. He came to the forum expecting to continue backing Trump, but he walked away feeling excited about DeSantis after hearing from him directly about his values.
The Family Leader reiterated that the event was not a debate after the Republican National Committee’s counsel’s office circulated a letter to campaigns dated Oct. 28 reminding candidates of their pledge not to participate in non-sanctioned debates. The letter warned candidates that attending the Family Leader’s forum would disqualify them from future RNC debates.