In a speech one year after the reversal of Roe v. Wade, former Vice President Mike Pence challenged the entire 2024 Republican presidential field to support a national abortion ban at 15 weeks, demanding that the party go farther than its primary front-runner, former President Donald J. Trump, has so far been willing to go.
Mr. Pence issued the call at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, a major two-day evangelical gathering in Washington, D.C., that drew Mr. Trump’s leading challengers and at the same time showcased the steep climb ahead of them.
Mr. Trump was a focus of attention for candidates and attendees alike. Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, was booed for rebuking the former president for his lack of leadership. Mr. Pence settled for drawing contrasts with Mr. Trump without naming him. And Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Mr. Trump’s leading — yet still far behind — rival in the polls, gave a speech that was well received, in part because he referred to his disagreements with Mr. Trump only implicitly.
“Everyone is running to bring Trump down, not to be the nominee,” said Veronica Steinkirchner, 75, who came to the conference from the Pittsburgh area and supports Mr. Trump. “If you look at the polls, they’re not going to catch him.”
Mr. DeSantis recently signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida that Mr. Trump said some in the anti-abortion movement considered “too harsh.” Both Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Pence have seized on that phrase to criticize the former president, though neither did so by name on Friday.
“It was the right thing to do,” Mr. DeSantis said Friday of signing the law. “Don’t let anyone tell you it wasn’t.”
It was revealing that some of the loudest cheers at the conference came not for any of Mr. Trump’s rivals but for Mark Robinson, the lieutenant governor of North Carolina who is running for governor, and who made a surprise endorsement onstage of the former president.
“This nation is at war,” Mr. Robinson said. “We need a warrior.”
Still, the Republican candidates present, including Mr. Pence and Mr. DeSantis, see abortion as providing an important political opening on Mr. Trump’s right flank and a chance to appeal to evangelical voters, who are an especially large voting bloc in two of the early-voting states, Iowa and South Carolina.
In a sign of the sway Christian conservatives are expected to have in the party’s primaries, the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference is the first gathering to draw the top candidates for the Republican nomination to the same event. Seven Republican candidates addressed the crowd in the windowless ballroom of the Washington Hilton on Friday; others will speak on Saturday, including Mr. Trump, who will headline an evening gala.
“There is no path to the nomination that doesn’t run through the evangelical community,” Ralph Reed, who is the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a decades-long fixture on the Christian right, said in an interview.
Mr. DeSantis, who is Catholic, recently sat for an interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, telling him that, “Our household is a Christ-centered household.” He recounted that his son, then 4, had wanted a slingshot for Christmas “to be like David slaying Goliath.”
The long-running tension in Mr. Trump’s relationship with the evangelical right is between the New York businessman’s personal behavior and the policies he pursued as president. He is both a three-times-married celebrity who was indicted in Manhattan this year over a hush-money payment to a porn star and a former president who rarely hewed from the policy preferences of conservative evangelical leaders while in office.
While Mr. Trump has repeatedly taken credit for appointing the Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade, he has so far resisted embracing a federal ban and has blamed backlash surrounding “the abortion issue” for some of the party’s losses in 2022.
Mr. Pence, who has sought to position himself as a leading opponent of abortion, pressed that point, declaring, “Every Republican candidate for president should support a ban on abortion before 15 weeks as a minimum nationwide standard.” He told the audience that “we must not rest and must not relent until we restore the sanctity of life to the center of American law in every state.”
Mr. Trump has repeatedly avoided taking a clear stance on whether he would support a national abortion ban that would curb access to the procedure even in Democrat-controlled states. In his CNN town hall earlier this year, Mr. Trump said he would strike some type of undefined deal on abortion if he returned to the White House. “What I’ll do is negotiate so people are happy,” Mr. Trump said at one point. “Make a deal that’s going to be good,” he said at another.
At the conference, Mr. Trump also received pressure on the issue from supporters, like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has endorsed Mr. Trump and is the sponsor of a 15-week ban in the Senate. Mr. Graham urged all the candidates to support the proposal.
“I challenge everybody wanting to be the standard-bearer for the Republican Party to be proudly pro-life,” Mr. Graham said. “You should want to talk about this. You need to talk about this.”
Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri who has not endorsed in the race yet, told reporters after his own speech on Friday that a 15-week ban was a “consensus position.”
“The deal ought to be 15 weeks,” Mr. Hawley said. “There, made it easy.”
While abortion was a dominant topic on the eve of the Dobbs decision anniversary at the evangelical gathering, there was also an intense focus on transgender policies in almost every speech.
Mr. Pence, who received a polite reception, also spurred cheers when he vowed, “We will end the gender ideology that is running rampant in our school.”
Some of the candidates mixed the messages on abortion and transgender issues.
“God is real, unborn life is life, there are two genders,” Vivek Ramaswamy, another Republican candidate for president, said in his speech, which received louder applause than some more prominent Republican candidates.
But if there were loud cheers for every mention of “gender ideology,” it was a different story when candidates talked about Mr. Trump, including when Mr. Christie criticized him for blaming aides for his own shortcomings.
“That is not leadership, everybody,” he said, “That is s a failure of leadership.” The crowd hissed, with some shouting “We love Trump!”
“You can love him all you want, but I can tell you, doing that kind of thing makes our country smaller,” Mr. Christie retorted.
Like many in the crowd, Billy Walkowiak, who is running for as a Republican for county commissioner in Gastonia, N.C., said he still liked Mr. Trump’s message. But with all the legal threats facing Mr. Trump — he was indicted this month for the second time this year and accused of obstruction and of mishandling classified documents — “There’s a lot of uncertainty of what’s going to happen with him.”
“The door” for Mr. Trump’s rivals, Mr. Walkowiak said, “is ajar.”
Alyce McFadden contributed reporting.