Facing Off in Washington, DeSantis Tries to Shake Trump’s Hold on Christian Right

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

Promising to “put on the full armor of God” in his fight for the religious right, Mr. DeSantis made his most full-throated case yet as a presidential candidate for a social conservative agenda — and pledged to battle what he called the left’s “woke mind virus.”

“The battle lines are we must win the fight to restore religious freedom as the founding fathers intended it,” Mr. DeSantis told the Pray Vote Stand Summit, organized by the Family Research Council on Friday evening, promising to create new “divisions of conscience and religious freedom” inside federal agencies like the Education and Labor Departments.

Less than two miles away, Mr. Trump simultaneously spoke at another social conservative gathering, pressing his case that he had delivered for the religious right as president and would do so again.

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

Mr. Trump spoke at an event for the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee, telling the crowd: “I love you. And I hope you love me.”Credit…Shuran Huang for The New York Times

The overlapping speeches to the same two audiences highlighted the significant role that Christian conservatives will play in the 2024 nominating contest, beginning in Iowa, where white evangelicals are projected to be a sizable share of the likely electorate in January’s caucuses. Mr. DeSantis in particular urgently needs to make inroads with evangelical voters if he has any hope of closing his current polling deficit with Mr. Trump.

Quoting from the Bible and announcing new measures he would enact as president — including an executive order to ensure that private funding to nonreligious schools would also be available to faith-based private schools — Mr. DeSantis painted a dark portrait in his two speeches of a country suffering through a “national malaise,” with the religious right under intense siege.

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

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

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

He mocked Mr. DeSantis as a political mimic, down to the way the governor sometimes tosses hats into crowds. “He gets low and he flicks his wrist,” Mr. Trump said, suggesting that Mr. DeSantis was copying his routine. “We don’t like these copycats, do we?”

And he reveled in his current advantage in the polls, telling the women’s group that Mr. DeSantis “went down like an injured bird out of the sky. And I’m actually quite happy about that.”

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

The twice-divorced Mr. Trump was not a natural ally of social conservatives in his first campaign. But he hewed closely to their priorities as president and appointed three Supreme Court justices who helped to overturn Roe v. Wade, which had been a decades-long pursuit on the right.

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

Asked if anyone could catch Mr. Trump in 2024, Ms. Nance said, “Well, that’s a heavy lift.”

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

Mr. DeSantis has actively courted evangelical leaders, particularly in Iowa, where he began his campaign with a speech at an evangelical church in the suburbs of Des Moines. He is traveling to the state on Saturday for another chance to woo evangelical voters at an event that is drawing most of the leading candidates in the 2024 race — except Mr. Trump. Mr. DeSantis has already visited more than half of Iowa’s 99 counties.

Mr. DeSantis has tried to use abortion as a wedge against Mr. 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 harsh.”

Addressing the Pray Vote Stand Summit, Mr. DeSantis tried to appeal to the evangelical voters he needs to be competitive with the former president, who has a hold on that base.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

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

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

Mr. Trump, in a hushed tone, addressed the complex politics of abortion at length on Friday, noting that, “We had midterms and this was an issue.” Following the overturning of Roe, Republicans lost a number of key races in which Democrats ran heavily on the issue of abortion.

But Mr. Trump attempted to cast Democrats as the “radicals” on abortion but also warned about the need for Republicans to “speak about it correctly.” He added: “Many politicians who are pro-life do not know how to properly discuss a topic which is so important.”

For Mr. DeSantis, the challenge of unseating Mr. Trump was apparent from the thunderous greeting for the former president by the two crowds and from the warm words of the leaders of the two groups.

After Mr. Trump ended his speech to the Concerned Women for America, Ms. Nance laid her hand on Mr. Trump and urged the crowd to join her in prayer: “Thank you God for giving us a president that was willing to do the hard thing to make America strong.”

She had not offered such an onstage prayer for Mr. DeSantis.

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