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Facing off in Washington, DeSantis tries to shake Trump’s grip on the Christian right

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and former President Donald J. Trump faced off before two crowds of social conservatives in Washington on Friday, with dueling speeches that demonstrated how influential evangelical voters are expected to be in the presidential primaries.

Vowing to “put on the full armor of God” in his fight for the religious right, DeSantis made his most vehement case yet as a presidential candidate for a conservative social agenda and pledged to fight what he called the “left” of the left. . virus of the awakened mind.”

“The battle lines are that we must win the fight to restore religious freedom as the founding fathers intended,” DeSantis said at the Pray Vote Stand Summit, hosted by the Family Research Council on Friday night, promising to create new “divisions.” of conscience.” and religious freedom” within federal agencies such as the Departments of Education and Labor.

Less than two miles away, Trump spoke simultaneously at another conservative social gathering, making his argument that he had defended the religious right as president and would do so again.

“I love you,” Trump said at the leadership summit of the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee. “And I hope you love me.”

The overlapping speeches to the same two audiences highlighted the important role that Christian conservatives will play in the 2024 nominating contest, starting in Iowa, where white evangelicals are projected to make up a sizable portion of the likely electorate in the January caucuses. DeSantis, in particular, urgently needs to make inroads among evangelical voters if he has any hope of closing his current electoral deficit with Trump.

Citing the Bible and announcing new measures he would enact as president, including an executive order to ensure that private funding for non-religious schools was also available for private religious schools, DeSantis painted a bleak portrait in his two speeches of a country suffering from a “malaise.” national”, with the religious right under intense siege.

He attacked the expansion of transgender rights, defended school choice policies and repeatedly invoked parental rights. He also promised to repeal the Johnson amendmentwhich prohibits tax-exempt entities, such as churches, from participating in political campaigns for or against candidates.

“The left views left-wing ideology as effectively the national religion,” DeSantis had told the women’s group earlier that day. “They will tolerate our faith as long as it doesn’t affect their agenda.” Trump echoed similar themes, with a strikingly different style that included attacking DeSantis by nickname and wandering into bizarre topics.

“We want to have choice in schools and we want to have choice in automobiles,” the former president told Concerned Women for America, pivoting in his religious freedom speech to an aside about electric vehicles.

He mocked DeSantis as a political impersonator, including for the way the governor sometimes throws hats into the crowd. “He bends down and moves his wrist,” Trump said, suggesting that DeSantis was copying his routine. “We don’t like these copycats, do we?”

And she reveled in her current lead in the polls, telling the group of women that DeSantis “fell out of the sky like a wounded bird. And I’m really very happy about that.”

Trump, who has been impeached four times and faces possible trials throughout 2024, also cast himself as a victim of unfair prosecutions and suggested that if elected again, he might ask his attorney general to prosecute his political opponents. He also said he would “appoint a special task force to quickly review the cases of every political prisoner who has been unfairly persecuted by the Biden administration.”

Trump, twice divorced, was not a natural ally of social conservatives in his first campaign. But he stuck closely to his priorities as president and appointed three Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade, who had been a right-wing pursuit for decades.

“Women aren’t looking for a pastor or a husband when considering a presidential candidate, they’re looking for a bodyguard, someone who will fight for them and their families on the issues they hold most dear,” said Penny Nance, executive director of Concerned. Women for America.

Asked if anyone could catch Trump in 2024, Nance said, “Well, that’s a tough job.”

At both events, Trump performed Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and soaked in the applause, waiting for the song to end before beginning to speak.

DeSantis has actively courted evangelical leaders, particularly in Iowa, where he began his campaign with a speech at an evangelical church in suburban Des Moines. She will travel to the state on Saturday for another chance to court evangelical voters in an event that draws most of the major candidates in the 2024 race. except mr trump. DeSantis has already visited more than half of Iowa’s 99 counties.

DeSantis has tried to use abortion as a wedge against Trump with social conservatives, noting on Friday that he had signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida known as the Heartbeat Protection Act. Mr. Trump has implied that the law is “Too hard.”

But the issue has not helped the governor with primary voters. In a New York Times poll in late July, Trump was favored over DeSantis in a hypothetical 70 percent to 25 percent head-to-head race among voters who strongly supported a six-week ban.

Trump’s appointment of the justices who overturned Roe continues to resonate. When Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, mentioned those appointments, the crowd erupted in applause. “He has fought for the unborn in America,” Perkins said.

Trump quietly addressed the complex politics of abortion at length on Friday, noting that “we had a midterm election and this was a problem.” Following the overturning of Roe, Republicans lost a series of key elections in which Democrats had a strong say on the abortion issue.

But Trump tried to portray Democrats as the “radicals” on abortion, but also warned of the need for Republicans to “talk about it right.” And he added: “Many pro-life politicians do not know how to properly discuss an issue that is so important.”

For DeSantis, the challenge of unseating Trump was evident in the thunderous salute that the two crowds gave the former president and in the warm words of the leaders of the two groups.

After Trump finished her speech to Concerned Women for America, Nance put her hand on Trump and urged the crowd to join her in prayer: “Thank you God for giving us a president who was willing to do the hard thing.” something to strengthen America.”

She had offered no such prayer on stage for DeSantis.

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