Top Iowa evangelical backs DeSantis over Trump in US presidential race

By Gram Slattery and Alexandra Ulmer

(Reuters) – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis will be endorsed on Tuesday by an influential Iowa evangelical leader, Bob Vander Plaats, a much-needed boost for a presidential campaign still struggling to find momentum ahead of next year’s Republican nominating contests, according to two people familiar with the decision.

But with former President Donald Trump an overwhelming frontrunner for the nomination and Iowa’s caucuses fewer than two months away, it remains unclear whether the endorsement can make a significant difference for DeSantis’ chances.

Vander Plaats will make an announcement backing DeSantis later on Tuesday. DeSantis’ campaign declined to comment, and Vander Plaats did not respond to a request for comment.

DeSantis had courted Vander Plaats, president of the Christian advocacy group The Family Leader, in recent months, appearing at several faith-based forums and championing strict limits on abortion as part of a heavy push for a strong finish in Iowa.

DeSantis’ campaign has long hoped to consolidate support among Iowa’s evangelical community in a bid to deny Trump a victory and slow his march toward the Republican nomination. Vander Plaats has been critical of Trump and has argued the party needs to move on.

The Republican nominee will face President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in the 2024 general election.

Recent polls have shown Trump with about a 30-percentage-point edge in Iowa over DeSantis and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.

But in the last three caucuses – in 2016, 2012 and 2008 – the Republican candidate backed by Vander Plaats and other prominent evangelicals has come from behind to win.

In 2016, Trump lost to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz 28% to 24% after leading in the polls in the weeks leading up to the vote.

Nevertheless, Trump’s pollster, Tony Fabrizio, argued in a memo released by the Trump campaign earlier this month that Vander Plaats’ endorsement would not have a dramatic impact on the race, saying he was not well known enough by the electorate.

DeSantis this month also received the backing of Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds, and now has campaigned in nearly every county in the state. He has stepped up his attacks on Trump while also trying to keep Haley, who has been gaining in polls, at bay.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery and Alexandra Ulmer; Additional reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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