DeSantis is trying to attract young evangelicals to Liberty University

After signing the nation’s toughest abortion law, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis presented himself to thousands of evangelical college students in the public square as a defender of truth, common sense and decency.

“Yes, the truth will set you free,” said Mr. DeSantis invoked the words of Christ. “We must wage a war as soon as we are awakened, because being awake means a war on the truth.”

At Liberty University’s twice-weekly graduation service, Mr. DeSantis spoke at what the school says is “the largest gathering of Christian students in the world.”

He spoke Thursday night on the abortion bill. When DeSantis signed on, he was introduced by Pastor Jonathan Falwell, who was named the school’s principal. The law prohibits the practice past six weeks.

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

“Prayers have been answered,” he said. He has touted his record on a number of issues, including new restrictions on gender-affirming medical treatments in Florida.

“We chose facts over fear, we chose education over teaching, we chose law and order over riot and disorder,” said Mr. DeSantis said. “We’re not backing down.”

As he builds momentum for his widely anticipated entry into the 2024 presidential campaign, Mr. The visit was part of DeSantis’ national tour of conservative centers of influence. More than that, it was an important opportunity to gauge, and perhaps improve, the state of his relationship with evangelical Christians—a Donald J. The voting bloc that helped propel Trump to the presidency appears to be open to new presidential contenders.

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

This is the stage where Senator Ted Cruz of Texas announced his candidacy in 2015. Mr Trump introduced himself to a broad evangelical audience and cast himself as the defender of a Christianity under attack – and popularly referred to as the “Two Corinthians”. In a faltering attempt to speak the same language as his listeners.

In the end, Mr. Trump doesn’t need to “evangelize” them to win them over. He won a larger share of the white evangelical vote in 2020 than he did in 2016. While some evangelical leaders have signaled that they are considering supporting another Republican candidate, many do not agree with Mr. remain loyal to Trump and have shown few signs of abandoning him. Total on his latest charge.

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

Jesse Hughes, a junior at Liberty, Mr. DeSantis hopes to hear a more intimate account of how his faith influenced his approach to governance and helped him navigate challenges like his wife’s cancer diagnosis. Instead, Mr. He said he heard things he knew from DeSantis’ other speeches.

Nevertheless, in Florida Mr. He was impressed by DeSantis’ track record on abortion law, education and “how she’s been willing to take a bold stand without giving in to media pressure.” Mr. Under DeSantis, the state banned discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in certain elementary school grades.

Mr. Hughes, Mr. He read DeSantis’s latest memoir, “Courage to Be Free,” but said it did little to help him understand the governor’s personal spiritual life. “There have been hints of his faith, but he hasn’t elaborated on anything,” he said.

Mr. Mr. Trump called the charges against Trump “political harassment.” Hughes was absent. But he added that many of his fellow students were willing to look past Mr Trump.

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21 year old Mr. Hughes is president of the campus’ College Republicans, which conducts a small informal poll of major student preferences. A few hours before the close of polls on Friday, Mr. DeSantis had 53 per cent of the vote, to Mr Trump’s 31 per cent and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley to 13 per cent.

“What I see is a definite interest in DeSantis, but not a rejection of Trump,” said Christine Cobbs Du Mes, a historian of evangelical Calvinism in Michigan and author of “Jesus and John Wayne” among white evangelicals.

Ms Du Mes sees Mr DeSantis as making the same appeal to conservative evangelicals as Mr Trump, positioning himself as a combative culture warrior who will “protect vulnerable Christians”. He is Mr. It may appeal to voters who are attracted to Trump but are tired of the chaos that has followed him, or who are skeptical about his chances of winning the general election.

But there is a trade-off. “What you gain in terms of stability in returning to DeSantis,” Ms. du Mes said, “you lose in terms of appeal.”

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

Mr. DeSantis grew up in a Catholic family in Florida. “Growing up as a kid, having my rear end in church every Sunday morning was non-negotiable,” 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 son-in-law’s religious upbringing.)

Until now, while positioning himself as the protector of the “God-fearing” people, he has been very cautious about his personal faith. In speeches, he often refers to putting on “the whole armor of God” — a biblical reference and an evangelical text — telling the audience to “stand firm against the left’s plans.”

Paraphrasing the apostle Paul in the book of 2 Timothy, he told the crowd, “I will fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith,” and ended his speech at Liberty with another verse reference.

One of the biggest lines of applause of the morning came from Mr. Not from DeSantis, but Mr. He noted that it was from Falwell. Mr. He assumed DeSantis would wait.

In 2022 Roe v. Abortion has become a thorny issue for Republicans since the Supreme Court overturned the Wade case. Part of its base is avoiding strong restrictions and moving away from the position of the electorate as a whole. And the issue raises concerns about how any candidate who can win the Republican primary can win the general election. Sixty-four percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal, according to a poll conducted this year by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Daniel Griffith, a graduate student who leads youth ministry at Liberty, said Mr. He said he was disappointed by some of DeSantis’ aggressive rhetoric. He noted that the governor’s lines about “awakening” drew more applause than his remarks about his economic achievements in Florida. “I have friends who think he’s woken up,” he said. “It gets excited, it gets noisy, it kind of stinks.”

Mr. Griffith, Mr. Trump on Mr. He said he was leaning toward supporting DeSantis.

“People are sick of controversy and sick of corruption,” he said. “Even at Liberty, we’ve had our own mess, and we’re sick of it,” he added, adding that Mr. He compared Trump’s outbursts and legal troubles to those of former school president Jerry Falwell Jr.

Former President of Liberty Mr. Falwell, Mr. One of Trump’s first major evangelical supporters. In January 2016, Mr. He endorsed Trump and became one of his most vocal allies.

Mr. Falwell resigned as president in 2020. The school hired a new chancellor in March, Dondi Kostin, a former Air Force chaplain who most recently was president of Charleston Southern University.

Out of power and without a platform, Mr. Falwell is a bystander, not an influencer, in this election cycle. He reached home on Wednesday, Mr. He said he didn’t have Trump’s phone number.

But his political intentions did not change.

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

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

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