DES MOINES, IOWA – They’ve traded fire from behind podiums on the Republican presidential debate stage.
But White House rivals Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy sat down together on Friday around the same table for a very different discussion in front of a large crowd of social conservative voters in Iowa, the state whose caucuses kick off the 2024 GOP presidential nominating calendar.
All three candidates shared personal and at times emotional stories at a presidential Thanksgiving forum hosted by The Family Leader, a politically active and influential social conservative group in a state where evangelical voters play an outsized role in Republican politics.
And each of the candidates spotlighted the difficulties they endured in having children as they showcased their opposition to legalized abortion.
‘I actually haven’t shared this story before,’ Ramaswamy said as he described his wife Apoorva’s first pregnancy.
‘About three and a half months in… one day she woke up, she was bleeding. She had a miscarriage. We lost our first child,’ Ramaswamy shared.
Moments later, he signaled for his young son to join him on stage.
DeSantis also noted his wife Casey’s miscarriage, and shared publicly for the first time how the two of them prayed for a child during a trip to Israel soon after their marriage.
‘We got back to the United States, and a little time later, we got pregnant,’ DeSantis continued. ‘But unfortunately, we lost that first baby.’
Haley also discussed the difficulties she had in getting pregnant.
And Haley doubled down on comments on her stance on abortion that she made last week at the third Republican presidential debate, in which she urged Americans to find consensus when it comes to limiting abortions.
Family Leader president and CEO Bob Vander Plaats noted that Haley’s debate comments sounded ‘pro-choice’ to some evangelicals and asked the presidential candidate to ‘assure them why that’s not a pro-choice answer.’
Haley reiterated that she is ‘unapologetically pro-life’ and emphasized that ‘our overall goal is how do we save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as we can.’
‘I think you can look at my entire record as governor. I fought for life whether it was a pain-capable bill, whether it was making sure that women had to wait to see an ultrasound before they made a decision,’ said Haley said as she pointed to her two-terms steering South Carolina.
And Haley, who served as ambassador to the United Nations during former President Donald Trump’s administration, touted that ‘they said that I was the most pro-life ambassador they had ever had represent the U.S. at the United Nations because we did everything we could to make sure our taxpayer dollars never went towards anything that would take that life away or abortion.’
When Vander Plaats pressed Haley on whether she would have signed a six-week abortion bill into law when she was governor,’ she quickly answered ‘Yes. Whatever the people decide, you should do.’
‘I think it’s right to be in the hands of the people. I think that the people decided this was put in the states; that’s where it should be. Everybody can give their voice to it.’
Nicole Schlinger, a longtime Iowa-based strategist with close ties to evangelicals, told Fox News that ‘this was the answer that I think Iowans were waiting for from Amb. Haley on life issues… I think that was very positive.’
‘Gov. DeSantis really came alive during the second half of this forum,’ added Schlinger, who’s neutral in the GOP presidential nomination race. ‘This was a very pro-DeSantis crowd. He got the biggest applause.’
While Haley and DeSantis have repeatedly clashed in recent weeks as they battle for second place in the polls behind Trump, who remains the commanding front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, there were no fireworks on Friday.
And the recent acrimony between Haley and Ramaswamy was also not evident at the forum.
‘I don’t want to know what is bad about the other person,’ Vander Plaats, who moderated the forum, said as he explained the ground rules. ‘I want to have an adult conversation about the future of this country.’
Trump, who was invited to the forum, declined to attend. It was the second major presidential cattle call hosted by the Family Leader that Trump skipped this year. The former president will return to Iowa on Saturday, to headline a rally.
The forum was briefly interrupted by a climate protester, who shouted, ‘Repent! Repent!’
‘How can you guys talk about being pro-life when our children’s future is on fire? ‘ the protester said before being escorted out of the hotel ballroom in downtown Des Moines where the event was held.