A trio of presidential hopefuls refrained from attacking each other. But one drew a strong contrast between himself and President Trump, who skipped the event.
DES MOINES, Iowa–Seated at a mock Thanksgiving dinner table decorated with autumn leaves, a trio of presidential candidates politely took turns going “beyond the talking points” to explain why they value “the sanctity of life.”
In response to that question from a moderator at the 2023 Presidential Thanksgiving Family Forum here on Friday, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis revealed the sorrow they felt as each of their wives suffered an initial miscarriage.
And former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley expressed gratitude for her husband, whose birth mother gave him up for adoption. She disclosed that she and her husband had trouble conceiving their two children–and feel blessed to have them.
Those intensely personal stories resonated with the capacity crowd of 800 evangelicals who gathered for the Family Leader Foundation’s forum at the Des Moines Marriott Downtown Hotel.
Before the event began, attendees were warned not to “boo” candidates; everyone was admonished to behave as if they were having a polite Thanksgiving dinner conversation—a departure from the free-for-all chaos that has plagued many official presidential debates in recent years.
Former President Donald Trump, who is the Republican frontrunner, was invited but did not attend; moderator Bob Vander Plaats, CEO of the Family Leader, made light of the former president’s absence, saying that some invited Thanksgiving guests don’t show up, either.
The former president is scheduled to appear at a rally in Fort Dodge north of Des Moines on Saturday; he and the three other candidates’ campaigns are in full swing as the important, stage-setting Iowa caucuses loom on Jan. 15.
Some who attended the forum told The Epoch Times they wish President Trump would have participated and that they intend to vote for him but were open to hearing from other candidates.
But a fan of Mr. DeSantis, Karen Dean, 56, of Red Oak, Iowa, said she doubts the brash native New Yorker would have fit in very well with the more genteel format, which forbade candidates from verbally attacking each other.
Her husband, Alan, 57, said President Trump probably made “a smart political move” by opting out. The former president also has skipped the three GOP debates.
Mr. and Mrs. Dean said they were glad they attended the forum, which helped them to see the more human side of the candidates.
The personal pro-life stories that Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Ramaswamy shared were among the most memorable statements of the two-hour discussion, the Deans and other attendees said.
Mr. DeSantis’ face lit up when he described hearing the “whoosh-whoosh” of a baby’s heartbeat when his wife, Casey, was pregnant. That underscored for him that, yes, this is undeniably a life.
Earlier this year, Mr. DeSantis signed into law “The Heartbeat Protection Act,” which bans abortions in Florida after a fetal heartbeat is detectable, usually after six weeks of pregnancy, but carves out some exceptions.
After losing their first child, the DeSantises continued to pray; now, three children later, “We’ve got a big, full joyous household,” he said.
Mourning and Joy
Mr. Ramaswamy’s personal pro-life story was longer and more emotional. He talked about how joyful he and his wife, Apoorva, were when they learned she was pregnant, albeit unexpectedly. They celebrated with friends and family, and each night, they wrote journal entries that they intended their unborn child to read someday.
“Our faith teaches us that … our child joined his creator—and one day we will, too,” said Mr. Ramaswamy. He is of the Hindu faith but said he found that Hindus and Christians have more in common than many people realize, which he learned while he attended a Catholic high school in his hometown, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Mr. and Mrs. Ramaswamy, like the DeSantises, prayed and relied on their faith. They conceived a second child. “But God wasn’t done testing us,” he said.
Mrs. Ramaswamy, who is a surgeon, suffered a “pin prick” puncture to her skin during one of the procedures she was performing. That was the first–and only time–this has happened to her, he said. Tests revealed the patient’s blood was infected with two potentially dangerous viruses; she underwent preventative treatments, possibly imperiling her pregnancy.
Sure enough, she started bleeding again. The couple feared they had lost their second child. Mr. Ramaswamy, who was traveling abroad on business at the time, helped his wife get a doctor’s appointment for the next day. He was bracing himself for bad news—especially after he heard her sobbing on the other end of the phone.
Mr. Ramaswamy paused as he told the story, drawing in his lips tightly to contain his emotion. Then he revealed what his wife told him: “They found a heartbeat.”
“And that was our son, Karthik … that was a life,” Mr. Ramaswamy said, gesturing for the child to come onstage. The audience, Mr. DeSantis, and Ms. Haley smiled and applauded as the charming 3-year-old toddled up to his father and climbed into his lap.
Karthik, who is the oldest of Mr. Ramaswamy’s two sons, remained there for the rest of the forum, a living testimonial to his father’s declaration: “When you bring life into this world, you protect all life, born and unborn.”
DeSantis Seizes Moment
Mr. and Mrs. Dean, the Red Oak couple, noted that although Ms. Haley had some strong moments, she didn’t seem to make as strong an impression as the other two candidates did. The applause for her seemed muted, they said.
The Deans said they think Mr. DeSantis attracted the most enthusiastic response of the night.
Mr. Vander Plaats asked Mr. DeSantis to address a common concern he hears. Many people say they wish Mr. DeSantis would defer to President Trump’s attempt to regain the White House following an election that he believes was wrongfully taken from him. These people ask about Mr. DeSantis: “Why doesn’t he just wait his turn?”
Mr. DeSantis responded, without hesitation: “Well, we’re a Republic. It’s not about waiting your turn. You have a right as a citizen to put your name out there.”
Then the crowd interrupted with cheers so loud it was hard to hear some of Mr. DeSantis’s words. He said he felt an obligation, as a father of three small children, to offer himself “as the leader to be able to get things done.”
The governor capitalized on the opportunity that Mr. Vander Plaats’ question presented.
“He’s becoming more politically astute,” Mrs. Dean observed.
Mr. DeSantis continued for five full minutes, using up much of his remaining time to deftly draw contrasts between himself and the former president. The forum allocated 28 minutes of total time for each candidate to respond.
The audience frequently cheered and applauded as the governor drove home his points.
Mr. DeSantis said he has made good on all of his campaign promises. But, he says, President Trump is reiterating many of the same pledges he made when he won the presidency in the 2016 campaign. Those include the completion of the U.S.-Mexico border wall to block illegal immigration, and “draining the swamp” of bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.
Now President Trump is only eligible to serve one more four-year term if he is reelected, which could render him ineffective, Mr. DeSantis said. In contrast, Mr. DeSantis pledged that, with him, “you get a two-term, conservative president who’s going to stand for your values and deliver for you for eight full years.”