Before he clinched the 2016 Republican nomination, won the presidency and remade the party in his nativist, norm-shattering image, Donald J. Trump lost the Iowa caucuses to a conservative Texan who had consolidated the support of evangelical leaders and voters in the state.

Eight years later, Mr. Trump is favored for victory in the Iowa caucuses on Monday, fueled by evangelical voters who have become among his most reliable supporters — and a more organized Iowa campaign effort that includes courting the kinds of religious leaders who helped propel Senator Ted Cruz’s victory in 2016.

Of Mr. Trump’s rivals, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has been the most aggressive in trying to cut into that advantage, making outreach to conservative Christian voters a central plank of his Iowa strategy and winning over some prominent onetime Cruz backers despite struggling in the polls. Mr. DeSantis, who signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida, has also cast Mr. Trump as insufficiently supportive of abortion restrictions.

The former president has criticized the Florida ban, but has also often reminded voters that he made the Supreme Court appointments that led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, has not put the same emphasis on courting evangelical voters in Iowa, walking a careful line in particular on abortion rights as she seeks to emerge as the more moderate and mainstream alternative to Mr. Trump.

We spoke with some of the Iowa pastors who supported Mr. Cruz in 2016 to understand how they are thinking through their choices now.

In some ways, their views capture why many Republican voters have embraced Mr. Trump again, despite the 91 felony counts he faces and his general-election liabilities — while reflecting still-smoldering tensions in the party over whether character matters.

Here are excerpts from those conversations, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Senior pastor at Marion Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, Iowa

Pastor Joseph Brown was an important Cruz backer, helping to organize support for the senator among pastors across the state. This year, he is supporting Mr. DeSantis, seeing him as an experienced executive with strong convictions on issues like opposing abortion.

But he also has little doubt about Mr. Trump’s staying power among religious conservatives in Iowa.

On his support for DeSantis: If Mr. Trump “was not a politician tomorrow, what would his values be then? And I believe with Ron DeSantis, it’s down deep. I believe he believes it, and when the going gets tough, I really believe that he will stand strong.”

On why DeSantis has struggled to maintain momentum: “If Donald Trump was not in the running this year in the Iowa caucuses, it would not even be a race. It would not even be close. Every single evangelical and every single pastor in the state of Iowa would be coalescing around Ron DeSantis. If you look at the [previous caucus winners] Santorums, the Huckabees, the Cruz, so on and so forth — DeSantis would be our guy. I mean, he’s my guy, but he would be our guy as a whole. But the dynamic of Donald Trump has just taken all the oxygen out of the room. He’s confused everything.”

On Trump’s enduring strength with evangelicals: “We really don’t understand why people that claim to hold values that are biblical values, constitutional values, why they would go with somebody who is so degenerate in their public life and speech. It really goes against everything that we have stood for as evangelicals, and really as conservative Iowans. I really think he’s shaming the evangelical movement in Iowa, because there are so many that are still supporting him.”

On a sense that the economy was doing better under Trump: “A lot of people are just closing their Bibles and closing their values and saying, ‘You know what, I want a more prosperous economy.’ And I think long term, we’re going to pay the price for that.”

Pastor, Ottumwa Baptist Temple, Ottumwa, Iowa

When Mr. Trump ran for president in 2016, Pastor Travis Decker regarded him as an “unknown wild card,” and considered Mr. Cruz to be the leading conservative in the race.

Now he sees Mr. Trump as the track-record candidate, pointing to his Supreme Court nominations, the economic picture during Mr. Trump’s time in office and fragile diplomatic accords in the Middle East reached during his tenure. Mr. Decker also said he believed Mr. Trump had won the 2020 election — in fact, he lost to President Biden — and suggested that he saw the former president, who faces several sprawling criminal cases, as a victim.

“It does bother me extremely what they’re trying to do, and just going after Trump in absolutely every single attack,” he said, adding, “I want him to get a second shot at it, another chance to just prove himself.”

Mr. Decker said his second choice was Vivek Ramaswamy — who has tried to fashion himself as the heir to Mr. Trump’s “America First” movement — and his third was Mr. DeSantis.

On whether Trump is sufficiently opposed to abortion rights: “It was the judges that he put in, they overthrew Roe versus Wade. I thought that was a very good thing.

“As far as a federal six-week ban goes, I believe that President Trump would pass it if got through the House and the Senate,” he said. He added, “I don’t think he has less of a stance on it than Ron DeSantis does.”

On Trump’s messaging: “I’m not a fan of some of the language that Trump uses … I’m not a fan of the fact that Ramaswamy is a Hindu, but we’re not voting for somebody in church. We’re voting for somebody to lead a country.”

On nostalgia for the Trump era: “President Trump already served four years. We saw what he did. I liked the record that he had. And so that’s what I’m going on. Now, I believe that DeSantis has done a good job as governor in Florida. But to me, he’s not proven in the presidency.”

Senior pastor, Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, Des Moines

Like many Republicans, Pastor Michael Demastus went from being a “no way Trumper,” as he put it, to calling him “the most pro-life president in modern American history.” Mr. Trump also won him over as president, he said, by taking steps like moving the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

But Mr. Demastus is not sold this time, sharply criticizing Mr. Trump for a video the former president shared titled “God made Trump.”

“He’s not the Messiah, nor do we see him in that light,” Mr. Demastus said. “Many evangelical voters look at Trump and support Trump even and believe that Trump is being persecuted in the courts. But when Trump says things like this, like it’s a preordained thing by God, well, it’s not.”

On the fight for evangelical support: “There are two candidates, in my opinion, that are doing very well with Iowa evangelical voters, and those two are Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy. And I think that those men have not only worked their butts off, but they have done what it takes in the retail politics world to look evangelical voters in the eye and say, ‘I need you to trust me because I’m the guy that can do this.’ And even though Vivek is Hindu, he has spoken the love language of evangelicals enough that he has turned many, many heads.”

Senior pastor, First Baptist Church in Waukon, Iowa

In northeastern Iowa, Pastor Duane P. Smith was deciding this week between Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis, weighing his concerns about Mr. Trump’s conduct against his approval of the former president’s policies while in office.

On Trump’s style: “He reacts to too many things rather than just letting things roll off his back. He has to respond to everything. And while I like the fact that he defends himself, he doesn’t need to defend himself on everything.”

On why he’s leaning toward him anyway: “Because of what he’s accomplished in the past, and I’m pretty sure he could get things done again.”

Senior pastor, Alathea Baptist Church, Des Moines

Pastor Doug DeFord will be missing the caucuses this year to attend a conference in Florida — but if he were in town, he said, he would be supporting Mr. DeSantis, a decision driven in part by concerns about Mr. Trump’s character.

On character tests: “Trump’s demeanor, the way he handles himself, the crude things he says, doesn’t particularly treat people with courtesy at times and so forth. I don’t appreciate that. But I think by and large DeSantis does. I think he’s much more of a gentleman.”

On opposing abortion rights: “DeSantis has been more consistent. And Trump not so much. I appreciate what Trump has done on that issue. But then he’s kind of backtracked a little bit.”

Senior pastor at Hope Baptist Church in Robins, Iowa

Pastor Ken Koske, leader of a church near Cedar Rapids, initially had high hopes for Mr. DeSantis, who was fresh off a resounding re-election victory and was making a concerted push to engage faith leaders. But as the campaign went on, he began to doubt Mr. DeSantis’s viability as a leader and a candidate, while Mr. Trump’s “America First” message still resonated with him.

On leaning toward Trump, with reservations: “There’s a lot of things I don’t like about him, all the tweets, insulting people, things like that I don’t care for … DeSantis I’m not sure has enough to win.”

On still feeling a connection with Trump: “I have been praying and I just feel like it’s what the Lord may want. It’s almost like a gut feeling. I don’t even know how to describe it to you. Which is weird, because there’s a lot of reasons why I would maybe say no, but that’s just how I feel.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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