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Family Leader summit in Iowa showcases GOP candidates to evangelical voters


Many Republican presidential candidates - not Donald Trump, but a bunch of the others - are in Iowa today, getting in front of a key voting bloc for them - evangelical Christians, who have a lot of sway within the party. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters is gearing up for yet another presidential election that will be big in Iowa. Hey there, Clay.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what makes this event called the Family Leadership Summit important?

MASTERS: Evangelical Christians are important in this Republican caucus. They make up, like, two-thirds of the Republican electorate in Iowa. Bob Vander Plaats is the head of the group putting this on - it's called the Family Leader - and he's a bit of a kingmaker of sorts. He always becomes relevant ahead of the Iowa caucus. He endorsed Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012 and Ted Cruz in 2016. And Steve, what do all three of these men have in common? They won the Iowa caucus those years.


MASTERS: Of course, none of them went on to be the nominee. And Vander Plaats is very public in saying it's time to move on from Donald Trump, and this year is different.


BOB VANDER PLAATS: Iowa is so crucial this year that I believe if the former president gets beat here, it's game on to the nomination. I believe if he wins here, he runs the table.

MASTERS: So that's why you see South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and so many more wanting to be on stage here today.

INSKEEP: Well, this is really interesting. You have Vander Plaats then trying to find an alternative to Donald Trump within the party. So what issues are motivating the kind of evangelical voters who will pay attention to an event like this?

MASTERS: Well, the one that is really top of mind this week would be restricting abortion. On Tuesday, the Republican-led legislature here passed a six-week abortion ban, and that's before most know that they're pregnant. Iowa's Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, ordered the one-day special session after Iowa's Supreme Court declined to reinstate a practically identical law that she signed about five years ago. She called this new bill a vindication of her earlier efforts. And she's actually going to sign that bill today at the Family Leadership Summit. So there's a photo op for these candidates.

And there was another one of these large gatherings with politicians giving speeches put on by a different evangelical group in the state a few months back. Most of the people I talked to there were motivated by so-called cultural issues. This is Rowdy Kraby. He's a firefighter from a small town near Ames.

ROWDY KRABY: Parental rights, education, anything that has to do with protecting children - if we're going to help our children, support our children and get them away from these ideologies that are just absolutely toxic.

MASTERS: He seemed to be really repeating conservative talking points or alluding to them around LGBT issues. In fact, his wife Lisa had just quit her job as a speech pathologist to homeschool their children. So Kraby wasn't for Trump at all eight years ago at the outset of the caucuses. Then he kind of warmed to him and became a big Trump fan. But he said he's, you know, willing to listen to these candidates as they come to Iowa and are showing up.

INSKEEP: Well, let's think about the dynamics here. You've got Vander Plaats, the organizer of this event, looking for an alternative explicitly to Donald Trump, but people attending events like this who are big Trump fans. Can Trump command a lot of the evangelical vote without even showing up?

MASTERS: I mean, I guess Trump would argue he can. He's still coming here. He was just here last week holding a rally in Council Bluffs. And he'll do another one of these televised town halls on Fox News next week from Des Moines. He also made news this week - he attacked Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds for not endorsing him. She's remained neutral so far in the race. She appears with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis quite a bit. And I think that's kind of getting under his skin.

So he's definitely not playing the traditional Iowa games. But I mean, he didn't play them eight years ago, and now he has a lot more GOP support in the state.

INSKEEP: Clay Masters, thanks so much.

MASTERS: You're welcome. Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Clay Masters is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio and formerly for Harvest Public Media. His stories have appeared on NPR