Three Republican presidential candidates will converge Friday at a gathering of evangelical Christians in Iowa for a “family discussion” that comes in the middle of an increasingly contentious primary.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy plan to attend the Family Leader’s Thanksgiving forum in Des Moines, which will have them gathered around a table, adorned with a Thanksgiving basket, vegetables and decorations, for what the group calls a “moderated, friendly and open discussion about the issues that are most important to evangelical Americans today.”
Candidates are duking it out to be seen as the party’s best alternative to former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination. And with less than two months until Iowa’s first-in-the-nation GOP caucuses, the event comes at a crucial time as they relentlessly hit the ground courting voters.
Trump, meanwhile, is skipping the forum, despite receiving an invitation to participate, and will instead host his own rally in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Saturday – a move in line with his snubs of other gatherings over the course of the campaign, including the three primary debates so far.
Trump also did not participate in the Thanksgiving forum in 2015 during his first presidential run, and he avoided another Family Leader event hosted earlier this year. The group’s president and CEO, Bob Vander Plaats, have been urging Republicans to move on from the former president.
In floating conventional primary traditions, Trump has belittled his Republican rivals and attempted to paint his campaign as focused on a general election fight against President Joe Biden. “This event is no different,” a Trump adviser told CNN of the Family Leader forum, arguing that the campaign saw no upside to having the former president engage in any sort of debate alongside his opponents.
Trump continues to dominate in Iowa polling. A recent Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa poll found 43% of likely Republican caucusgoers picking Trump as their first choice, compared with 16% each for Haley and DeSantis. Ramaswamy trailed with 4%.
Heading into Friday, the prospect of whom Vander Plaats will ultimately endorse hangs over the gathering. The longtime GOP powerbroker has thrown his weight behind the eventual winner of the past three Iowa caucuses not to feature an incumbent Republican president and is expected to endorse a candidate soon.
Vander Plaats has previously said that he’s discussed a possible endorsement with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who recently gave the DeSantis campaign a welcome boost by announcing her support for the Florida governor. Speaking days before the third primary debate in Miami, Reynolds said there was “too much at stake” to remain neutral in the caucuses as past Iowa governors had done.
Vander Plaats has said that Reynolds’ decision to back DeSantis will influence his pick, leaving the Florida governor’s camp hopeful he will ultimately secure Vander Plaats’ endorsement, according to a Source familiar with the campaign’s thinking.
DeSantis has made Iowa central to his hopes of besting Trump for the GOP nomination, believing that the path to staging a real challenge to the former president runs through the state.
Haley, meanwhile, has spent more of her time focused on the early nominating states of New Hampshire and South Carolina, her home state, effectively ceding ground in Iowa to Trump, who is polling far above the other primary contenders in the state.
But her campaign announced Monday that it would spend $10 million on a new advertising blitz in Iowa and New Hampshire, beginning in the first week of December.
Part of that play is focusing on energy policy — a top concern of corn farmers in Iowa — and something Haley has made a focal point of her campaign in the early-voting states.
She’s also increasingly attacked DeSantis over his energy record, suggesting the Florida governor harbors progressive environmental views — an argument her campaign finds particularly effective in the Hawkeye State.
This week, a super PAC aligned with Haley began airing a new ad in Iowa that leaves viewers with the false impression that DeSantis supports a nationwide ban on hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” a method for extracting natural gas.
Trump has also targeted DeSantis’ energy record during his visits to the state, repeatedly bringing up DeSantis’ past opposition to ethanol subsidies.
DeSantis and Ramaswamy, meanwhile, have been heavily focused on attacking Haley’s record on China — something they believe resonates with Iowa voters who are concerned the country is undermining US agriculture. At the Miami debate, the two heaped criticism on Haley for her decision as South Carolina governor to recruit a Chinese fiberglass company to her state. The two have more recently jumped on Haley’s proposal for social media users to identify by their legal names online.
Ramaswamy and Haley also sparred during the last debate, with Haley calling Ramaswamy “scum” after he referred to her daughter’s use of TikTok in response to a question about banning the social media app owned by a Chinese-based company.
Ramaswamy, like DeSantis, has also used many of his campaign’s resources on courting Iowa voters. He’s done more than 150 events in the state, according to his campaign. His team also recently moved staff from his current campaign headquarters in Ohio to Iowa and New Hampshire.
Friday’s Thanksgiving forum has not come without its own drama. Earlier this month, there were questions about whether any presidential contender would be able to attend without risking their spot in future GOP primary debates.
A week before the forum was scheduled to be held, the Republican National Committee warned candidates that attending the event would disqualify them from participating in upcoming debates. Although the forum is not a debate, the Family Leader set polling thresholds for candidates’ participation, requiring them to meet a RealClearPolitics polling average of 4% or more in national or Iowa polls by November 1.
Days later, however, after some of the candidates made clear they had plans to attend anyway, the RNC relented and reached a deal with Vander Plaats that would allow the presidential contenders to participate.
“The RNC and I have agreed on the format of @TheFamilyLeader November 17 Thanksgiving FAMiLY Forum. The Forum is NOT a debate. Thus, the RNC is giving a thumbs up for candidates to participate. Thanks to the RNC for facilitating a win/win for the process. #ChooseWell2024,” Vander Plaats tweeted Saturday.
In prior Thanksgiving forums, candidates have put the beards against opponents aside and shared personal stories about themselves. This year’s crop of candidates have been encouraged to do the same. Vander Plaats, who will moderate the event, told the forum “gives us a chance to see what’s in the candidates’ hearts, not just what’s in their plans.”
“And coming shortly before the holiday season, it may be the last, best chance to really understand what makes these leaders tick before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses,” he said in a statement.
CNN’s Steve Contorno, Jeff Zeleny and Aaron Pellish contributed to this report.