More than nine months before the Iowa caucuses, eight declared and potential presidential candidates came to a gathering of Christian conservatives on Saturday evening to test a question: Can flesh-and-blood politicians eyeing the highest office in the land be upstaged by a canned, prerecorded video?
The answer was almost certainly yes.
The audio did not quite match the video on former President Donald J. Trump’s recorded message to the hundreds gathered at the largest cattle call yet of the fledgling campaign season. The delivery of his trademark hyperbole was rushed to fit into the final, 10-minute window that closed the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s spring kickoff.
But the reception given to the man who wasn’t there — and who, according to a new NBC News poll has the support of nearly 70 percent of Republican primary voters — was strikingly different from the applause given to those who were, and the candidates who bothered to make the trip barely bothered to try to knock the front-runner from his perch.
Their strategy appeared straightforward: Avoid confrontation with the better-known, better-funded front-runners, hope Mr. Trump’s attacks take out — or at least take down — Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who is second in most Republican polls, and hope outside forces, namely indictments, take out Mr. Trump.
Then it’s anybody’s game.
“I think it’s going to come down to me and Donald Trump very soon in this race,” Vivek Ramaswamy, a multimillionaire entrepreneur and author, said in an interview before delivering an address in which the former president’s name was not uttered. “I know that may sound odd to folks like you who are tracking the present, but if you’re going to see where the puck is going, there’s a hunger for an outsider.”
The Iowa conservatives who attended the events on Saturday swore they were open to a Republican nominee not named Trump. They munched on Chick-fil-A sandwiches, listened attentively and were eager to talk politics eight years after the last real Republican presidential contest in Iowa.
“I like to see them battle it out,” said Dan Applegate, a former co-chairman of the Dallas County, Iowa, G.O.P. “The good candidates are the ones who can make it through.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence made an appearance, greeted like a celebrity by potential voters though his pitch for military aid to Ukraine garnered a tepid response. So was Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, and some others who were far below the radar, like the radio personality Larry Elder, former Representative Will Hurd of Texas, Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic congresswoman-turned-conservative gadfly, and a businessman named Perry Johnson.
Mr. Johnson, in fact, was the only speaker to challenge a front-runner by name when he concluded his remarks: “I just want to say, DeSantis is making a huge mistake by not coming here. And I don’t understand it, but each to his own.”
Otherwise, the hopefuls just wanted to avoid the candidates who opted not to come in person.
“It’s about being able to deliver a message that resonates and recognizing that we want a tomorrow that will be better than yesterday. We want a next year that needs to be better,” said Mr. Hurd, on his first trip ever to Iowa, “and I think anybody who taps into that, regardless of the competition, can be can be successful.”
It is early in the race, extremely early. In April 2015, two months before Mr. Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower to declare his candidacy, those gathered at the same Faith and Freedom forum had no idea what was about to hit them. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida warned of the metastasizing threat of Islamic jihadists. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky fretted over Common Core, a long-forgotten concern about the nationalization of school curriculums.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas railed against a Supreme Court that was one vote away from ordering small businesses to serve gay couples, while Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, bragged that under his leadership, his state had ended abortions after 20 weeks, a threshold that would be considered the height of timidity in the post-Roe v. Wade G.O.P.
Once Mr. Trump entered, those issues would be swept away by his peculiar brand of personality politics and name calling.
This time, the potential candidates know exactly what they are up against, but they just didn’t address it. Mr. Pence fretted over “radical gender ideology” and pupils penalized for improper pronouns. Mr. Scott, preaching his trademark optimism and unity, nonetheless warned that “the radical left, they are selling the drug of victimhood and the narcotic of despair.”
In private, Mr. Ramaswamy suggested that true voters of faith could see through Mr. Trump’s assumed trappings of religiosity, and he castigated Mr. DeSantis for refusing to sit down with news outlets he deems ideologically hostile and to speak on college campuses. In public, he was far more oblique, declining to name names when he said that if a conservative could not bring himself to visit a college campus, he probably should not be sitting across a negotiating table with Xi Jinping, China’s top leader.
Mr. Trump could give the audience what it was looking for, hailing the overturning of Roe v. Wade — “nobody thought it was going to happen” — and the most anti-abortion presidency ever, while promising to “obliterate the deep state,” hunt down “the radical zealots and Marxists who have infiltrated the federal Department of Education.” He concluded, “The left-wing gender lunacy being pushed on our children is an act of child abuse, and it will stop immediately.”
It went over well. Paul Thurmond, a 65-year-old from Des Moines, chatted amiably and shook hands with Mr. Pence as the former vice president made his way from table to table. But Mr. Thurmond, though he said he was open-minded, was clearly partial to Mr. Trump.
“Right now, I think Pence is too nice a guy,” he said. “He won’t be able to contend with the evil that the Democrats will rain down on him.”