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Trump skips Iowa gathering of evangelical Christians. His rivals hope for a chance to gain ground

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Some of Donald Trump ‘s top rivals for the Republican presidential nomination will address a gathering of influential Iowa evangelical Christians on Saturday night, hoping to woo them away from the former president at an event he is skipping.

Former Vice President Mike Pence planned to attend the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual banquet and town hall in Des Moines along with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Also on the schedule of speakers were Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, as well as Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former Texas Rep. Will Hurd.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican who has not endorsed a candidate, was expected.

The crowd will largely consist of devout and well-connected social conservatives whose ranks are large enough to play a decisive role in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation Republican caucuses in January. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz used strong appeals to evangelical Republicans to win the GOP’s 2016 caucuses.

This time, however, Trump’s rivals face a much tougher task as he has built a large GOP primary lead

Despite skipping the event and many of the gatherings that attract most of the candidates, Trump has maintained his popularity with evangelical Christians and social conservatives in Iowa and elsewhere. They were delighted to see his three picks for the U.S. Supreme Court vote to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision last year and erase a federally guaranteed right to abortion.

“No president has ever fought for Christians as hard as I have and I will keep fighting for Christians as hard as I can for four more years in the White House,” Trump said at the Family Research Council’s annual Pray Vote Stand conference in Washington on Friday night. He added, ““Every promise I made to Christians as a candidate, I delivered.”

Abortion often dominates the discussion at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition events, but organizers say this year will also feature talk about combating what they call gender ideology and championing bans preventing transgender athletes from competing in girls sports.

“You are going to face blowback, you’re going to face attacks, you’re going to face smears, and it’s the faith in God that gives you the strength to stand firm against the lies against the deceit against the opposition,” DeSantis said in remarks at the Family Research Council event.

As President Joe Biden runs for reelection, the Democrat and top members of his party are championing abortion rights, promising to codify the guarantees of Roe v. Wade. But getting such a measure through a divided Congress is almost impossible.

Biden has also proposed federal rules to prohibit schools from categorically banning transgender athletes in school sports. His proposal would allow schools to institute limits designed to ensure fairness or prevent sports-related injuries.

Will Weissert And Thomas Beaumont, The Associated Press