DeSantis Attempts to Woo Young Evangelicals

The Florida governor pitched himself as a defender of traditional values to students at Liberty University, an important stage for Republican presidential hopefuls.

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By Ruth Graham

The morning after signing one of the nation’s most stringent abortion bills into law, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida pitched himself to thousands of evangelical college students as a defender of truth, common sense and morality in the public square.

“Yes, the truth will set you free,” Mr. DeSantis said. “Because woke represents a war on truth, we must wage a war on woke.”

Mr. DeSantis spoke to about 10,000 students at Liberty University’s twice-weekly convocation service, which the school bills as “the world’s largest gathering of Christian students.”

He was introduced by pastor Jonathan Falwell, recently named the school’s chancellor, who drew sustained applause when he mentioned Mr. DeSantis’s signing of the abortion law on Thursday night. The law prohibits the procedure past six weeks.

Mr. DeSantis did not explicitly mention the abortion law. He opened his speech on a personal note, thanking the audience for their prayers after his wife’s cancer diagnosis in 2021.

“The prayers have been answered,” he said. He went on to tout his record in Florida on an array of issues including new restrictions on gender-affirming medical treatments.

“We chose facts over fear, we chose education over indoctrination, we chose law and order over rioting and disorder,” Mr. DeSantis said, referring to his record in Florida. “We did not back down.”

Who’s Running for President in 2024?

The race begins. Four years after a historically large number of candidates ran for president, the field for the 2024 campaign is starting out small and is likely to be headlined by the same two men who ran last time: President Biden and Donald Trump. Here’s who has entered the race so far, and who else might run:

Donald Trump. The former president is running to retake the office he lost in 2020. Though somewhat diminished in influence within the Republican Party — and facing several legal investigations — he retains a large and committed base of supporters, and he could be aided in the primary by multiple challengers splitting a limited anti-Trump vote.

Nikki Haley. The former governor of South Carolina and U.N. ambassador under Trump has presented herself as a member of “a new generation of leadership” and emphasized her life experience as a daughter of Indian immigrants. She was long seen as a rising G.O.P. star but her allure in the party has declined amid her on-again, off-again embrace of Trump.

Vivek Ramaswamy. The multimillionaire entrepreneur and author describes himself as “anti-woke” and is known in right-wing circles for opposing corporate efforts to advance political, social and environmental causes. He has never held elected office and does not have the name recognition of most other G.O.P. contenders.

Asa Hutchinson. The former governor of Arkansas is one of a relatively small number of Republicans who have been openly critical of Trump. Hutchinson has denounced the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and said Trump should drop out of the presidential race.

President Biden. While Biden has not formally declared his candidacy for a second term, he is widely expected to run. But there has been much hand-wringing among Democrats over whether he should seek re-election given his age. If he does run, Biden’s strategy is to frame the race as a contest between a seasoned leader and a conspiracy-minded opposition.

Marianne Williamson. The self-help author and former spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey is running for a second time. In her 2020 campaign, the Democrat called for a federal Department of Peace, supported reparations for slavery and called Trumpism a symptom of an illness in the American psyche that could not be cured with political policies.

Others who might run. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire are seen as weighing Republican bids for the White House. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a longtime vaccine skeptic, filed paperwork to run as a Democrat.

The visit was part of Mr. DeSantis’s national tour of centers of conservative influence as he builds momentum for his widely anticipated entry into the 2024 presidential campaign. More than that, it was a crucial opportunity to gauge, and perhaps advance, his relationship status with evangelical Christians — a voting bloc that helped vault Donald J. Trump to the presidency and appears to be open to new presidential suitors.

Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., has long been an important stop for Republican politicians and conservative celebrities eager to reach the campus’sundergraduates.

Many of their parents and others, including some of the school’s 130,000 online students, stream the services online. It is the stage where Senator Ted Cruz of Texas announced his candidacy in 2015. It is also where Mr. Trump introduced himself to a wider evangelical audience, pitching himself as the defender of a Christianity under attack — and famously referred to “Two Corinthians” in a fumbled attempt to speak the same language as his listeners.

Ultimately, Mr. Trump did not need to “speak evangelical” to win them over. He won an even higher share of the white evangelical vote in 2020 than he did in 2016. Though some evangelical leaders have signaled they would consider supporting another Republican candidate, many remain loyal to Mr. Trump and have so far shown few signs of abandoning him en masse over his recent indictment.

For Mr. DeSantis, the question is whether he can loosen that extraordinary bond.

Jesse Hughes, a junior at Liberty, said on Thursday that he was hoping to hear Mr. DeSantis offer a more intimate account of how his faith influenced his approach to governing and helped him navigate challenges like his wife’s cancer diagnosis.

Mr. Hughes read Mr. DeSantis’s recent memoir, “The Courage to Be Free,” but said he found little to help him understand the governor’s personal spiritual life. “There are references to his faith, but he doesn’t go into much detail on anything,” he said.

Still, he is impressed with Mr. DeSantis’s record in Florida, including his approach to abortion legislation, education, and “how he’s willing to take bold stances and not cave to media pressure.” Under Mr. DeSantis, the state has banned discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in some elementary school grades. On Thursday, Mr. DeSantis signed one of the most stringent restrictions on abortion in the nation, prohibiting the procedure past six weeks.

Mr. Hughes brushed off the indictment against Mr. Trump as “political persecution.” But he also said that many of his fellow students are ready to move past Mr. Trump.

Mr. Hughes, 21, is the president of the campus’s College Republicans club, which is conducting an informal poll of student preferences in the primary. On Thursday, the day before the poll closed, Mr. DeSantis had 87 votes to Mr. Trump’s 52, with other candidates in single digits.

“What I’m seeing is definite interest in DeSantis, but not a rejection of Trump” among white evangelicals, said Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian at evangelical Calvin University in Michigan and the author of “Jesus and John Wayne.”

Ms. Du Mez sees Mr. DeSantis making a similar appeal to conservative evangelicals as Mr. Trump did, positioning himself as a combative culture warrior who is “protecting the vulnerable Christians.” He may appeal to voters who are drawn to Mr. Trump but exhausted by the chaos that follows him, or doubtful of his chances to win in a general election, she said.

But there is a trade-off. “What you gain in terms of stability in turning to DeSantis,” Ms. Du Mez said, “you lose in terms of charisma.”

She said that most conservative evangelicals at this early stage seem genuinely open to either of the leading candidates. Among voters, at least, “it’s a friendly competition.”

Even some of Mr. DeSantis’s evangelical supporters are watching and waiting.

“He’s doing a wonderful job here in our state,” said Tom Ascol, a Southern Baptist pastor in Cape Coral, Fla., who delivered a prayer at the governor’s inauguration in January. He described Mr. DeSantis on Thursday as a “man of a principle” and a “man of courage,” in contrast to Mr. Trump, whom he sees as courageous but a pragmatist.

But when asked if he would like to see Mr. DeSantis in the general election in 2024, Mr. Ascol demurred. “I don’t want to lose him in Florida,” he said. “I would be delighted if he stays right here for as many days as he possibly could as our governor.”

Mr. DeSantis spoke at conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan on April 6, where he highlighted his role as a brawler in the culture wars, including his plan to transform a small progressive public university into a beacon of conservatism, and his pushback to Covid precautions and vaccine mandates, which he referred to as “Fauci-ism.”

Mr. DeSantis was raised in a Catholic family in Florida. “Growing up as a kid, it was nonnegotiable that I would have my rear end in church every Sunday morning,” he wrote in his memoir. He has an aunt who is a nun and an uncle who is a priest, both in Ohio. (Both declined to comment on their nephew’s religious upbringing.)

Until now, he has deployed mentions of his personal faith fairly cautiously, while positioning himself as a defender of “God-fearing” people. In speeches, he often refers to putting on “the full armor of God” — a biblical reference and an evangelical touchstone — telling audiences to “stand firm against the left’s schemes.”

He closed his speech at Liberty with another scripture reference, telling the crowd that “I will fight the good fight, I will finish the race, and I will keep the faith,” paraphrasing the apostle Paul in the book of 2 Timothy.

But he still faces hurdles in winning over the most committed Trump supporters.

Jerry Falwell Jr., a former president of Liberty, was one of Mr. Trump’s first prominent evangelical supporters. He endorsed Mr. Trump in January of 2016, about a week after the candidate spoke at Liberty’s convocation, and became one of his most vocal allies.

Mr. Falwell resigned as president in 2020 in a haze of tawdry controversies, and is currently suing the school over his retirement payments. The school named a new president in March, Dondi Costin, a former Air Force chaplain who was most recently the president of Charleston Southern University.

Out of power and without a platform, Mr. Falwell is an observer in this election cycle, not an influencer. Reached at home on Wednesday, he said he no longer has Mr. Trump’s phone number.

But his political instincts have not changed.

“I’ve got nothing against DeSantis at all, I just don’t think he’s ready for prime time yet,” Mr. Falwell said, remarking that the governor “looks like a little boy.”

He added, “I’m still 100 percent a Trump man.”

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