DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Republicans battling to be their party's alternative to former President Donald Trump came together Friday for a different kind of cattle call Friday, bringing personal and emotional stories to what an influential Iowa Christian organization billed as a friendly conversation.
Three candidates — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — sat down for a roundtable “family discussion” in Des Moines Friday. Trump did not attend, though he was invited.
All three connected their opposition to legalized abortion to difficulties they had having children. DeSantis talked about his wife Casey's miscarriage and its impact on them, while Haley mentioned the difficulty she had getting pregnant. Ramaswamy gestured for his son to join him onstage after detailing how his wife, Apoorva, thought she had suffered a second miscarriage.
The candidates shared their personal stories in an unusual forum, as they have rarely appeared side-by-side in such a collegial setting on the campaign trail.
“I don’t want to know what is bad about the other person,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the influential Family Leader, who moderated. “I want to have an adult conversation about the future of this country.”
The field around Trump is winnowing with less than two months before the Iowa caucuses kick off the GOP nominating calendar. In a sign of the urgency the field faces, many of his rivals are going after each other more frequently with jabs that have often turned personal.
This week, DeSantis and Ramaswamy both criticized Haley after she said Tuesday that social media companies should ban people from posting anonymously online.
DeSantis posted on social media that the proposal was “dangerous and unconstitutional,” while Ramaswamy referenced the idea as “disgusting.” Ramaswamy and Haley have frequently feuded in recent candidate debates, culminating with Haley calling Ramaswamy “scum” after he attacked her daughter for using TikTok, the video-sharing app that many Republicans want to ban due to its links to China.
And the rivalry between DeSantis and Haley is also growing, with both sides competing hard for major donors and arguing over who has a better chance of beating Trump.
There was little sign of such tension Friday. Around a Thanksgiving table, the candidates addressed each other by their first names and at times noted where they agreed. The conversation often led candidates back to pieces of their stump speeches, as foreign policy on Israel, China and the Russia-Ukraine war, religious liberty and agriculture were raised, but the interactions between them were friendly.
The Family Leader reiterated that the event was not a debate after the Republican National Committee’s counsel’s office circulated a letter to campaigns dated Oct. 28 reminding candidates of their pledge not to participate in non-sanctioned debates and warning that attending the Family Leader’s forum would disqualify them from future RNC debates.
After DeSantis committed to attending anyway last Friday, Vander Plaats posted on social media and the RNC issued a second letter to campaigns stating that the two had come to an agreement on the format and the forum would proceed as planned.
Trump, the dominant front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, has skipped all three primary debates so far and instead hosted large rallies to appeal to his supporters, as he will on Saturday in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
By HANNAH FINGERHUT Associated Press
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