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Pence touts Trump role overturning Roe to Iowa evangelicals

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Spring Kick-Off Saturday, April 22, 2023, in Clive, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Although Donald Trump has often avoided talking about abortion as he campaigns again for the White House, his former vice president, Mike Pence, is not shying away from celebrating Trump’s efforts to restrict abortion rights.

Pence, who is weighing whether to launch his own presidential campaign, raised his voice to nearly a roar when speaking to religious conservatives in Iowa on Saturday night as he touted Trump’s nominations of three conservative judges to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The appointments paved the way to the court in 2022 overturning the landmark Roe. v. Wade ruling, which had affirmed a federal right to abortion.

Pence, long known for his conservative values, called the appointments “the most important of all” the accomplishments of the Trump administration, drawing loud applause and cheers from the crowd of influential religious conservatives.

“We did that, Iowa,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud to have been a small part of an administration that did just that.”

Pence’s appearance kicked off the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual spring fundraiser, which marks the unofficial start of the state’s 2024 caucus campaign. The event features a slate of Republican candidates and potential contenders, including U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is expected to enter the race.

Trump, who’s already a candidate, is set to address the gathering later Saturday via video. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, considered a top rival to Trump, is not attending.

The event hosted by a Christian group gives the presidential prospects the chance to make their pitch to evangelicals in a state where Republicans will kick off the nominating process next year. It’s also a shot at making an impression on activists who may be open to an alternative to Trump at a time when he is mired in legal problems and was recently charged in New York in a hush money scheme involving a porn actor.

The gathering comes as abortion rights have reemerged as a pivotal issue in elections after conservatives last year achieved their long-sought goal of overturning the Roe. v. Wade ruling.

The Republican presidential field is trying to get a handle on how far to go in supporting restrictions on the procedure to satisfy the conservative base in the primary but not to further alienate general election voters, most of whom support keeping abortion legal.

On Thursday, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, the nation’s leading anti-abortion group, condemned Trump’s position that abortion restrictions should be left up to states, not the federal government. The group called it a “morally indefensible position for a self-proclaimed pro-life presidential candidate,” a strong rebuke of a former president whose nominations to the Supreme Court led to Roe’s overturning.

The anti-abortion group has said it will not support any White House candidate who does not at a minimum back a 15-week federal abortion ban.

Distinguishing himself from Trump, Pence told reporters during a stop in Jefferson, Iowa, earlier Saturday that the Supreme Court’s ruling does not preclude federal restrictions.

“I’ll certainly support efforts to create a threshold of support for the unborn even at the national level,” Pence said, adding he would support “the minimum of a 15-week ban.”

Pence’s advocacy group has pushed for Congress to pass legislation including a national abortion ban beginning around six weeks.

Despite the credit Trump received for his judicial nominations, he was criticized after last year’s elections for saying that Republicans’ underperformance was due to abortion foes’ opposition to exceptions for women who became pregnant by rape or incest or whose life was at risk.

All the Republicans in the race or moving toward running have supported state bans on abortion. Most have been much more cautious about staking a position on a nationwide ban.

Scott has said he would support a federal law to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. He has a chance on Saturday night to share his calls for uniting the nation around Christian faith and hopefulness, a message that diverges from the adversarial tone of Trump and DeSantis.

He, along with Pence, has visited regularly with evangelical pastors during his early trips to Iowa, with the aim of building rapport with clergy who can be influential in their churches among politically active social conservatives.

Also appearing or set to appear Saturday night were Vivek Ramaswamy, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, radio host Larry Elder, former Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, former Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Perry Johnson.

In his closing remark, Johnson made reference to the Florida governor’s absence from the event.

“I think DeSantis is making a huge mistake for not being here,” Johnson said. “But to each his own.”