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GOP presidential candidates finally say it: Character matters

At a Thanksgiving-themed forum, three smiling Republicans take a collective shot at Trump

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Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, right, greets businessman Vivek Ramaswamy as the two GOP presidential candidates participate in the Thanksgiving Family Forum on Nov. 17, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, right, greets businessman Vivek Ramaswamy as the two Republican presidential candidates participate in the Family Leader’s Thanksgiving Family Forum on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

Big news out of Iowa: when selecting a president, character matters.

That was what three of the leading Republican presidential candidates declared Friday night, while sitting around a mock Thanksgiving dinner table in Des Moines. The event — nicknamed the Thanksgiving Family Forum, and hosted by a local evangelical group — was like a debate, except there was no arguing. The participants — Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy — were told that they couldn’t speak about the other candidates, except to pay “genuine” compliments. They all agreed, and didn’t speak much about one another.

By the end of the night, after discussing and disagreeing on issues ranging from personal faith to Israel, they reached consensus on one thing: the president of the country sets an example for the nation’s character, and she or he must live up to a high standard.

It’s taken this crop of presidential candidates some time to come around to the idea. At the first debate, candidates spent more time interrupting than debating. At the second, one candidate flamed another for making her feel “dumber.” Then Mike Pence, who seemed the most mild-mannered of the bunch, dropped out. At the last debate, a candidate took a personal shot at another’s daughter, and the offended retaliated by calling him “scum.” Days later, Tim Scott — the closest thing in the race to a pastor — dropped out, too.

All this happened in the shadow of former President Donald Trump, who still holds a substantial lead in the national polls, and who now faces over 90 criminal charges in courts across the country. Before tonight, when candidates took jabs at Trump, they mostly critiqued his policy or his unwillingness to show up at debates. On Friday, some of them took their first real shots at his character.

While candidates were barred from using Trump’s name — per the previous agreement of not critiquing any of their fellow candidates — they certainly tried. At one point, the event’s moderator, Bob Vander Plaats, went around the table and reminded the candidates of Trump’s nickname for each: “Ron DeSanctimonious” (DeSantis), “Vivek the Fake” (Ramaswamy), “Birdbrain” (Haley).

“How do we raise the bar of expectation again?” he asked.

DeSantis quoted Abraham Lincoln, calling on “the better angels of our nature” to guide us. Haley said “the tone at the top matters.” Ramaswamy, holding his son on his lap, said that the president is different than any other public official, because he sets the tone for the “national character.”

Ramaswamy admitted it’s been “a long time” since he could look his children in the eye and tell them, “I want you to grow up to be like him and her, whoever is in the White House.”

This candor was not apparent at the start of the event. It began like any other political event, albeit with a prayer. The host welcomed Gov. Kim Reynolds, seated in the front row, who stood and turned to wave. “This state loves her,” one Republican strategist told me earlier in the day at a Haley event, and it showed — the entire room, filled by 800 attendees, stood to applaud her. DeSantis won her endorsement earlier this week, and he’s doing all he can to milk every last drop of political benefit from it. He’s blanketing TVs statewide with a new ad where she features prominently. She stood with him Saturday morning when he cut the ribbon on a new office in Des Moines. And he hosted her post-Thanksgiving Forum at his afterparty, where Iowa elites and potential voters mingled over hors d’oeuvres.

DeSantis and Ramaswamy arrived onstage first, taking their seats at the long, rectangular table, decorated with artificial fall leaves and plastic pumpkins. Vander Plaats laid out the rules — no personal attacks, no back-and-forth debating. “This is not a debate,” he said. “I don’t want to know what is bad about the other person. I want to have an adult conversation about the future of this country.” This was a dinner table, he noted, but all sharp objects had been removed.

But Haley was delayed, prompting an awkward pause and encouraging Vander Plaats to stall until she showed. When she rushed to her seat, about a minute after the other two candidates arrived, she paused to shake both of their hands. Neither of the men stood up to shake hers, with cheeky smiles planted on their faces. DeSantis, who’s been slammed for his seeming inability to smile — some say he looks like he has a constant toothache; others, a colonoscopy — seemed to overcompensate. For the first two minutes straight, he showed off his pearly whites. And then Ramaswamy started speaking, and he returned to his trademark scowl.

The first question was this: “How do we make family central again as a country?” Ramaswamy piped up first, saying there was no silver bullet, and the answer wouldn’t be “some president coming down from on high.” He listed some of the ills he’s preached against throughout his campaign: a lack of patriotism, a lack of faith, a new cult of progressivism. Haley spoke about raising her children, emphasizing literal time at the dinner table with them.

And then DeSantis went a level deeper. He told a long-winding story about his struggles with his wife, Casey, to have a child. They prayed and tried, eventually conceiving, but resulting in a miscarriage. “It was a tough thing, because this was something we had so much hope for,” he said. They now have three children.

Then Ramaswamy told a vulnerable story of his own. He was a recent law school graduate and his wife was in her medical residency when she became unexpectedly pregnant. “We were ecstatic,” he said. They bought a journal, and each night, they’d write a letter to their future child. But she had a miscarriage. Apoorva, Ramaswamy’s wife, fell into depression. “Our faith is what got us through,” Ramaswamy said, visibly emotional.

During her second pregnancy, Apoorva underwent a health scare and nearly lost the child. “That was our son, Karthik,” he said. He looked to the front row, where the four-year-old was sitting, and signaled for him to come up. The child ran onstage and sat on Ramaswamy’s lap for the duration of the event.

It set a mellowed tone for the rest of the event. The only shouting came from a protester, who ran near the stage and began shouting, “None of you care about our children’s future! Our children’s future is on fire.” They took their share of political jabs — DeSantis transitioned from a story about parenthood to plug his fight against Disney, and Ramaswamy railed against “transgenderism” and “wokeism” — but they never attacked any of the other candidates on stage.

“I loved this forum, because it was really showing more of the heart of the candidates, instead of policy issues,” Sam Brownback, the former U.S. senator and Kansas governor, told me afterward.

The three candidates still trail by over 40 percentage points nationally, trying desperately to escape Trump’s shadow. They’ve hit Trump on policy over and over. Haley frequently slams the massive spending during the Trump administration. Ramaswamy has hit him for not repealing Obamacare. DeSantis doesn’t think Trump can beat Biden in a general election.

Now, they’ve all publicly said they think his character, too, is lacking. Whether they will stick with that message is to be seen.