Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump met with nearly 1,000 evangelical Christians Tuesday morning in attempt to win over the GOP’s most reliable voting bloc at a pivotal moment in his campaign.
Taking the stage to a standing ovation, the presumptive Republican nominee participated in a carefully orchestrated question-and-answer session in a hotel ballroom. The event was billed as a conversation where pre-selected conservative Christian leaders would ask Trump questions culled from a survey of all participants, on such topics as religious liberty, the military, abortion and attacks against religious minorities in the Middle East.
Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee moderated the conversation, subtly nodding to Trump’s lifestyle by joking that “this is not a pastoral search committee.”
It was intimate as a gathering of 1,000 people can be, and as private. A sign at the event told the audience that photos were not allowed. “I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, but use your brain, which God gave you,” retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson told the room as they prepared to welcome Trump, according to a tweet from a participant.
Women were noticeably absent from the event. Programing for the day’s conference, which included the main question and answer session, listed 13 men and no women as the speakers. Trump was asked only about half a dozen questions, all by men, including Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, president of the First Liberty Institute law firm Kelly Shackelford, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Ronnie Floyd, and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Coalition Samuel Rodriguez, Jr.
President of the Susan B. Anthony List Marjorie Dannenfelser and Concerned Women of America president Penny Nance were slated to ask a question, but they did not.
Organizer Bill Dallas had insisted that the event would be back and forth. “If it is a question, and one long answer, that is not a conversation,” Dallas told TIME on Monday—but those asking the questions for the large part did not press Trump on his answers.
Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn—who has suggested she’d be open to being Trump’s running mate and was not listed on the program—addressed the group before Trump’s arrival and discussed her work on the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, which is investigating sales of fetal tissue. “What we are seeing is an assault on American values that affects the church and the pro-life movement,” Blackburn tells TIME.
Rodriguez, whose network of Hispanic evangelical churches is 40,000-strong, asked Trump what his strategy is to protect borders and build a bridge with the Hispanic community, a “wonderful community.” More than eight in ten Hispanics have an unfavorable view of Trump, according to recent polls. E.W. Jackson, a conservative lawyer and pastor, told a conference call of his supporters after the event that Trump had told them, “‘I know the polls says that I’m losing Hispanics big time, but anecdotally, every time I hear a Hispanic, they are supporting me. Hispanic citizens understand their jobs and livelihoods are at stake too.’”