This story originally was published by Real Clear Wire
By Philip Wegmann
Real Clear Wire
The Iowa Family Leader and the Republican National Committee are at an impasse.
When the influential evangelical organization invited each of the 2024 GOP presidential candidates to attend its Thanksgiving forum, the Republican National Committee quietly warned the campaigns that participating in the event would disqualify them from all future sanctioned debates, RealClearPolitics was first to report.
Regardless, the Iowa Family Leader doesn’t have plans to reschedule or reformat. “We are going to move forward with the forum,” said Bob Vander Plaats, the president and CEO of the organization.
The issue is what exactly constitutes a debate. According to the RNC counsel, the forum is an unsanctioned debate, and participating in the event would violate the pledge candidates signed in order to participate in the sanctioned debates.
According to Vander Plaats, who characterized all his conversations with the RNC as “amiable,” this is nonsense. “First of all, this is not a debate, not even close,” he told RCP in a Thursday morning interview, noting how his organization previously hosted primary candidates in 2012 and 2016 without incident. Rather than standing behind podiums, attendees sit around the same table. And rather than exchanging barbs, in past years, they’ve talked about their faith.
The rules are simple. “You can’t talk negative about anybody at the table,” he said. And the upside is obvious. “It would be good to show how a modern team of rivals can sit at a table together and have an adult conversation about the future of the country,” he added.
Vander Plaats said three candidates already confirmed they would attend, the Des Moines Register was first to report. He repeated that list in an interview with RCP: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, and Vivek Ramaswamy. None, however, would confirm their plans.
The Scott campaign did not return a request for comment. The DeSantis campaign declined to comment, though the governor’s campaign manager, James Uthmeier, previously told RCP that he found it “a little bit odd” that “the RNC would suddenly feel threatened by that event when it has happened in so many prior races.”
A Ramaswamy spokeswoman told RCP that their campaign remains “hopeful that the RNC and Family Leader will be able to work out their logistical issues to best serve the voters.”
Underscoring the drama over whether to break bread with Vander Plaats is the weight of his endorsement. He has a history of picking winners in Iowa. He backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008. Each won the caucuses there but fell short of the Republican nomination.
One candidate who will not receive his support this year: Donald Trump. Like some social conservatives, Vander Plaats has previously said he appreciates the achievements of the former president, such as appointing the Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade, but he is “exhausted” by Trump’s relentless rhetoric.
“Iowa is tailor-made to upend Trump,” Vander Plaats told CNN in September. “If he loses Iowa, there’s a competitive nomination process. If he wins Iowa, I think it’s over.”
Unless the Republican Party brass relents, the evangelical warned, the party could accidentally upend the entire process. If the RNC disqualifies candidates who attend his forum, he warned, “I think you just squelched all your debates.”
When RCP first broke the news of the RNC red line, some on the right reacted by accusing the party of favoring Trump by keeping the competition from participating in an advantageous opportunity. “I think they would want to make sure they do everything in their power to make sure they’re not putting their finger on the scale for the former president,” Vander Plaats said when asked about that criticism.
“And that said, I’m not into Republican Party politics, but I think the Republican Party could use a win,” he added.
“It’s ‘We the People,’ and the RNC is coming back saying ‘No, it’s we the party or we the process.’ It makes no sense to me,” he concluded.
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