Donald Trump called Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s six-week abortion ban “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” underscoring the kind of contrast he hopes to draw with his chief primary rival on an issue that has proven to be an electoral liability for the GOP.
In an interview with Kristen Welker during her Sunday debut as the new Meet the Press moderator on NBC, Trump refused to say whether he’d sign a 15-week federal abortion ban if it came across his desk as president. “I would sit down with both sides, and I’d negotiate something, and we’ll end up with peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years. I’m not going to say I would or I wouldn’t,” Trump said. “I mean, ‘DeSanctus’ is willing to sign a five-week and six-week ban.”
Trump was referring to the six-week state abortion ban DeSantis signed in April, a move that has earned him repeated criticism from the GOP frontrunner, who currently leads the field by 40 points. But DeSantis has also been hesitant to embrace a federal ban, which has generated criticism from hardline anti-abortion groups like the influential nonprofit Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.
Both Trump and DeSantis were in Washington, D.C. on Friday for a pair of events hosted by the Concerned Women of America and the Family Research Council, two major anti-abortion groups. At the Family Research Council summit, Trump reiterated his belief that a hardline anti-abortion stance hurts Republicans electorally, and said he supports bans with exceptions for rape, incest, and in cases where the life of the mother is at risk. “They lost a lot of elections, and we can’t let that happen,” he said. “Many politicians who are pro-life do not know how to properly discuss the topic.”
Trump’s criticisms didn’t seem to dampen the mood. Reuters reported that Trump was greeted with a “thunderous ovation.”
Indeed, the former president’s lead among evangelical Christians currently stands at 35 points, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll that closed last week. And when the Family Research Council conducted a straw poll of Friday’s event, Trump garnered nearly two-thirds of the vote, with DeSantis in second at 27%.
DeSantis hopes that religious voters will revive his flailing campaign, especially in Iowa, where evangelical Christian voters form a crucial voting block (and where Trump has alienated several state leaders). On Thursday, the Florida governor announced his “Faith and Family Coalition,” which includes more than 70 faith leaders in the critical primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. DeSantis was in the Hawkeye State this weekend for the annual Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition banquet. Trump declined to attend.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is also hoping to court evangelical voters, spoke in front of the Family Research Council Friday, where he lamented “the erosion of the traditional family.” Unlike Trump and DeSantis, Pence has consistently pushed for the GOP primary field to embrace a national abortion ban, a stance he reiterated at the Iowa banquet on Saturday to what the Associated Press described as “tepid applause,” likely a reflection of some anti-abortion voters’ understanding that such a stance courts electoral disaster.
Pence only garnered 2.2% of the votes in the straw poll of Family Research Council event attendees. Perhaps of even greater insult, just 2.9% put his name down as their preferred vice presidential pick, less than half the number that selected Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., currently running in the opposing party’s primary.