By James Oliphant
(Reuters) – Republican presidential hopefuls will address a rally of social conservatives in the premier state of Iowa on Friday, but the event will be most notable for the 2024 candidate who won’t be there: the frontrunner , Donald Trump.
Trump’s absence has angered forum organizers, the Christian advocacy group The Family Leader, which says the former president is missing an opportunity to woo evangelicals in Iowa, a key Republican electoral bloc.
Iowa will hold the first Republican nominating contest on January 15, when voters choose their preferences to face Democratic President Joe Biden in November 2024. Candidates who received strong evangelical support have won the state in recent years.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and US Senator Tim Scott will be among the candidates at the forum, which will be hosted by the former Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson. Trump’s campaign said he had a scheduling conflict.
DeSantis, whom national polls show as Trump’s most viable challenger, is counting on a victory in Iowa to energize his campaign and slow Trump’s momentum.
With a lead of about 30 percentage points in the national polls, Trump appears willing to engage Iowa voters on his own terms. After being criticized for skipping the evangelistic event, his campaign announced he would return to Iowa for a mayoralty next week.
The former president also made waves in Iowa this week by lambasting the state’s popular Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds for suggesting she backs DeSantis despite pledging neutrality in the contest.
This led The Family Leader Chairman and CEO Bob Vander Plaats to declare on Twitter that Trump pursuing Reynolds wasn’t smart and that the race in the state was “wide open”.
A former Republican Party chairman in the state, Cody Hoefert, has publicly said he will no longer support Trump after his attack on Reynolds.
Reynolds is expected to appear at the forum on Friday and sign the six-week abortion ban passed this week by the Iowa legislature. Trump has criticized those restrictions as politically divisive.
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Alistair Bell)