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Donald Trump’s strained relationship with evangelicals provides an opportunity for opponents.

WASHINGTON (AP) — There is a growing schism in Donald Trump’s relationship with conservative faith voters, which potential GOP challengers see as an opportunity.

Trump, on the other hand, has already stated that evangelical leaders who abandon him will pay a price.

“That’s a sign of betrayal,” Trump said on “The Water Cooler with David Brody” on Tuesday. “No one has done more to protect the right to life than Donald Trump.”

Even without the full support of a key voting bloc in the GOP, Trump may be able to survive and emerge victorious.

“There is a massive opportunity for another GOP candidate to capture a significant share of the faith voters in the primary,” said Elijah Haahr, a conservative radio host and former Missouri House speaker. “The question is whether it matters. That vote was divided in 2016, and for it to have a significant impact on the race, it would need to unite behind one primary candidate.”

Few in the evangelical community, which could account for roughly half of the GOP primary vote, doubt the significance of Trump’s selection of the justices who overturned the long-standing federal protection of abortion rights. However, his recent actions, such as blaming anti-abortion Republicans for midterm losses, have given many conservative religious leaders and their congregations pause. More importantly, he now faces the possibility of losing to President Joe Biden again if Republicans do not nominate someone else.

According to Trump spokesman Steven Cheung, Trump is unbeatable on abortion and the best candidate to take on Biden.

“President Trump’s unrivalled record speaks for itself—nominating pro-life federal judges and Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade, ending taxpayer-funded abortions, reintroducing the Mexico City Policy, which protects the life of the unborn abroad, and many other actions that champion the life of the unborn,” Cheung said. “When compared to Joe Biden’s heinous record of abortion on demand and using American tax dollars to fund the killing of the most vulnerable, it is clear that we need President Trump back in the White House.”

A nationally prominent and politically connected leader in the conservative faith community described evangelical conflict in a variety of ways, including the tension voters feel between their nostalgia for Trump’s presidency and their fear that he is no longer their best hope.

“The evangelical community is divided,” said the leader, who requested anonymity in order to speak openly about Trump. “Look, we sincerely appreciate everything Trump has done for us. It was more than we had hoped for, and it was exactly what he had promised. But there’s also a sense that his time has passed, but we don’t want to say that and then hand him a gold watch and tell him to take a seat.”

That explains why evangelical leaders are listening to his potential opponents, most notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence, who is on a “megachurch tour” to promote his memoir “So Help Me God,” according to one adviser.

Pence, who helped Trump secure religious conservative support when he was named to the Republican ticket in 2016, has been welcomed by key figures in Trump’s coalition as he considers running for president. Pence has maintained close ties with the evangelical community since his election to Congress more than two decades ago.

Pence appeared last weekend with Robert Jeffress, pastor of Dallas megachurch Fist Baptist and a longtime Trump supporter. He is scheduled to appear with Pastor John Hagee, the founder of Cornerstone Church and the group Christians United for Israel, at the 22,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio on Sunday. Pence is also scheduled to speak to faith voters in Houston, Miami, Naples, Fla., and New York City in the coming weeks.

According to the Pence adviser, there is an opportunity with evangelicals and a broader set of Republican primary voters.

“Losing the 2020 election took the shine off Donald Trump for all the blocs of [GOP] voters,” the adviser said. “I think his behaviour post-office has probably taken the shine off more, you know saying that you can cast aside the Constitution, calling into question the pro-life movement. These are the kinds of things that, in my opinion, undermine your credibility with the evangelical community and conservative voters in general.”

Trump, who sat at the White House while his supporters ransacked the Capitol and threatened to kill Vice President Mike Pence during the Jan. 6, 2021 insurgency, said in December that his defeat “justified the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”

Since Pence refused to assist him in overturning the election results, he has been openly hostile toward his former vice president.

But Trump has vacillated between ignoring and attacking DeSantis, possibly unsure which approach is best for preventing the Florida governor from ascending.

When in attack mode, Trump has chastised DeSantis for refusing to say whether he will run for governor in 2024, cast himself as a key supporter of DeSantis’ first bid for governor, and dubbed DeSantis “DeSanctimonious.”

At a time when conservatives are concerned that Biden will be re-elected, Trump’s criticism of fellow Republicans is resonating with many evangelical voters, according to Dan Carr, pastor of Slidell Community Baptist Church in Louisiana.

“I think his ongoing attack has slowly but steadily pushed people away,” said Carr, who described himself as a “pro-Trump pastor” but admitted he has not decided who to support in 2024. “I still think Trump is the leader among evangelicals, but I do think that Ron DeSantis is gaining much ground. Mike Pence is the third candidate. [He] is absolutely desperate for that vote.”

DeSantis has kept a deliberate silence about his political future, but he has been vocal in his support for Christian conservative causes. Not only has he signed legislation prohibiting schools from teaching “critical race theory” and discouraging discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, but he is also attempting to deprive Disney of autonomy in retaliation for the latter measure.

Carr praised DeSantis for opposing Disney’s “wokeness” and working to ban vaccine mandates in his state, citing both as issues important to conservative faith voters. DeSantis expresses his religious beliefs frequently in public, such as when he quoted from Psalms during his inaugural address earlier this month.

“I will not be afraid, even if tens of thousands assail me on all sides,” he said at a time when Trump had recently targeted him.

But it’s not just potential opponents who have been the target of Trump’s barbs since he launched his campaign two months ago. Trump blamed anti-abortion Republicans for the GOP’s disappointing midterm elections, saying the issue was “poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on no exceptions, even in the case of rape, incest, or life of the mother.” Many conservative evangelicals believe that abortion should be prohibited in all circumstances.

However, some religious leaders say they will back Trump because he kept his campaign promises to them.

“I’m going to support him all the way through the Republican primary,” said pastor Franklin Raddish, founder and director of Capitol Hill Independent Baptist Ministries in South Carolina. “He’s proven, tested, and dependable.”

“We intend to push him to the right,” Raddish added.

The Faith and Freedom Coalition plans to host candidates for a “Road to Victory” forum on April 22 in Iowa, the first state on the GOP nomination calendar and a state Trump lost during his 2016 GOP nomination bid. This should allow hopefuls and faith voters to get to know one another better.

“If candidates come here and act interested, they’ll do well; if they don’t, they won’t,” said Steve Scheffler, president of the organisation and a member of the Republican National Committee. “I wouldn’t call Trump the favourite to win or lose Iowa. Iowa, in my opinion, is wide open.”

In other words, if he were a betting man, he would not bet.

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