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DES MOINES, Iowa — Ten Republican presidential candidates tried to win over Iowa caucus voters this weekend at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition banquet, without the in-person shadow of front-runner Donald Trump.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis defended Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.’s hold on military promotions over a Defense Department policy that allows some service members to take leave for an abortion out of their state. "Is that really something that is helping to protect this country?" said DeSantis, who talked about his time as a lawyer in the U.S. Navy.
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley opposes the policy but disapproves of Tuberville’s strategy. "These military men and women and their families sacrifice enough. Don’t use them as political pawns," Haley said. The former South Carolina governor described her husband’s deployment with the National Guard in Africa.
On the House impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, former Vice President Mike Pence said he "absolutely" backed Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s decision. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a House impeachment manager during Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, said he had not seen enough evidence for an impeachment inquiry.
PolitiFact journalists attended the town hall after a Poynter Institute training for journalists about the Iowa caucuses with Drake University. The evening gave us a rare chance to watch the candidates try to woo voters in person, in one place.
Pence and Hutchinson, Trump critics who are trailing in the polls, mingled with voters and reporters before the town hall.
Our attempt to interview Pence — someone we’ve fact-checked 75 times since 2009 — didn’t get past introductions. "PolitiFact … I know the guy that founded it," Pence said, referring to Bill Adair, the founding editor who left for a professorship at Duke University in 2013. A Pence campaign aide interrupted, saying press time would come later.
Hutchinson was optimistic about GOP voters who don’t like him pushing back on Trump’s election denialism. "I do believe there’s an improving response to that," he said. "But you also have to do it in a winsome way, because eventually I hope those Trump voters move away and I’ll get the benefit of that."
When we finished our interview, Hutchinson’s wife, Susan introduced herself, offering marriage advice and telling the story of how they met before the former governor yanked her away to go inside the banquet hall.
Candidates sat for 10-minute interviews with Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman Ralph Reed or Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird. The crowd’s enthusiasm for businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., was easy to see. Larry Elder, former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, businessman Perry Johnson and businessman and pastor Ryan Binkley also spoke.
True to the event, several questions focused on candidates’ faith or views on abortion and were not checkable. Here’s our quick take on a few claims that stood out.
Ron DeSantis said, "I can say that every single thing I promised I would do as governor, I have delivered on 100% of my promises." Because we’re tracking 15 of his campaign promises, we know this isn’t true. DeSantis pledged to reduce the corporate income tax, for example, but it remains at 5.5%. See more coverage in our DeSant-O-Meter.
Mike Pence was talking about his plans for the economy when he said, "We’re experiencing the worst inflation in 40 years under Joe Biden." Inflation has been high under Biden, but this talking point is a year out of date. Inflation fell from its peak of about 9% in June 2022 to about 3% in June 2023. Year-over-year inflation increased to 3.7% in August.
Vivek Ramaswamy repeated a biographical line: "My parents came here with no money 40 years ago. I have gone on to found multibillion-dollar companies." Fox News and The Washington Post fact-checked this line after the first debate, noting his parents’ advanced degrees and how he described the "comfortably middle-class family with two incomes" childhood in his 2022 book "Nation of Victims."
Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy is joined onstage by his wife, Apoorva Ramaswamy, before speaking at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition's banquet Sept. 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP)
I waited for Ramaswamy to wrap up photos with fans and volunteers in the hall before asking him to elaborate. He said his point is "we didn’t grow up rich."
"They took on a car loan to buy their first Honda Accord, two-door hatchback. And grew up in a $90,000 house with a mortgage until the age of 6," he said. "But, yes, they worked hard."
In the book, Ramaswamy pinpoints sixth grade as the year he became a conservative. At the time, his mother was a geriatric psychiatrist and his dad was an engineer who had worked for General Electric Co. for 20 years. His family worried about the threat of GE layoffs, so he studied to be a patent lawyer at night on top of his day job, and his mom worked extra hours.
I said Ramaswamy’s answer was different from the "no money" line he says onstage. "When they arrived here, they basically had almost no money," he said.
Melissa Jackson, 43, of Adel, Iowa, was one of many attendees who took pictures with Ramaswamy and grabbed one of his black "Truth" hats. But she said she has decided to support DeSantis in the Jan. 15 caucuses. She met the Florida governor and his wife, Casey at a Pizza Ranch in Winterset this summer. She liked that DeSantis didn’t "let himself get bullied" on COVID-19. She didn’t want her 9-year-old daughter Adriana to have to wear a mask in first grade.
I asked Jackson whether she cared when politicians don’t tell the truth. "I think it’s unacceptable for them not to. I don’t want to be lied to," she said. She brought up the Biden White House X account, calling it a "bot account."
What did she think of Trump’s record on truth? "For me, it’s more about the outcome. How was my life when this person was president?"
After the interview, Jackson ran back up to us to add one more priority she wished the candidates were talking about: high mortgage rates that push home ownership out of reach.
"My daughter’s future is my top issue," she said.
Audience Director Josie Hollingsworth contributed to this report.
Please see sources linked in the story.