Top Iowa evangelical backs DeSantis over Trump in US presidential race

By Alexandra Ulmer and James Oliphant

(Reuters) -Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was 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.

But with former President Donald Trump an overwhelming frontrunner for the Republican nomination and Iowa’s first-in-the-nation contest less than two months away, it remains unclear whether the endorsement can make a significant difference for DeSantis’ chances.

"We need to find someone who can win in 2024," Vander Plaats said in an interview on Fox News, adding he does not believe Trump would be re-elected.

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

DeSantis had courted Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Christian advocacy group the Family Leader, in recent months. He campaigned at several faith-based forums while championing strict limits on abortion as part of a heavy push for a strong finish in Iowa, which will hold its caucuses on Jan. 15.

The DeSantis campaign, a super PAC linked to him and a nonprofit group supporting him together paid $95,000 in recent months to Vander Plaats' organization, the Family Leader, Reuters exclusively reported in August.

DeSantis’ campaign has long hoped to consolidate support among Iowa’s evangelical community in a bid to deny Trump an early victory and stave off what would amount to a Republican coronation.

"His support tells Iowans they can trust me to fight and win for them," DeSantis said on X.

Vander Plaats said a win by DeSantis in Iowa would reshape the race.

"If President Trump wins Iowa here, I think it's going to be awfully hard to make the case that you can beat President Trump. And he's going to be your eventual nominee," he said. "I think America is well served to have a choice."

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.

For the $95,000 paid to Vander Plaats' organization, DeSantis and supporting groups got three pages of advertisements in a booklet distributed at a July forum attended by 2,000 Christian conservatives, and tickets to the summit, lunch and an after-dinner event.

As he has before, Vander Plaats in the interview denied any connection between the funds and his support.

In response to the endorsement, the Trump campaign sent out a memo from Trump’s pollster, Tony Fabrizio, that argued it would not have a dramatic impact on the race, saying Vander Plaats was not well known enough by the Iowa 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 James Oliphant and Alexandra Ulmer; Additional reporting by Gram Slattery; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Lisa Shumaker)