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Days After Heated Debate, G.O.P. Candidates Take a Gentler Tone in Iowa

Casey DeSantis recounted a few humorous interactions between her husband, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, and their children. Then she spoke in more sober tones about her fight against cancer.

Vivek Ramaswamy brought his 3-year-old son, Karthik, onstage and discussed his Hindu faith.

And Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, sitting beside her daughter, Rena, who recently married, said she still remembered her as a little girl “in pigtails.”

The Republican presidential candidates who spoke at a “faith and family” event on Saturday at Dordt University, an evangelical Christian school in Sioux Center, Iowa, sought to present a kinder, gentler side of themselves, just days after an acrimonious debate and little more than a month before the Iowa caucuses, the first nominating contest.

The candidates came to this town of just over 8,000 people on a snow-dusted plain in rural northwestern Iowa, fewer than 40 miles from South Dakota, to pitch themselves to the area’s conservative voters and to seek the endorsement of Representative Randy Feenstra, the region’s popular Republican congressman. Mr. Feenstra and his wife interviewed each candidate in front of about 400 community members and college students at the B.J. Haan Auditorium, where banners read “Glory to God Alone.”

Mr. Feenstra said the more uplifting tone of the event was purposeful.

“We didn’t want bickering,” he said. “People just wanted to hear an honest answer to some of these questions, without people interrupting, without having a 90-second little segment.”

Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur and author, traded in his barbs for a kinder tone — until after the event.Credit…Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Then, away from the crowd and the religious symbols, the candidates went right back to attacking each other — at least mildly.

The switch in rhetoric underscored the tenuous position of any candidate not named Donald J. Trump. The former president, who was not at the event, has maintained a commanding lead over his rivals, and even Ms. Haley, who has gained ground as Mr. DeSantis has slipped, trails far behind.

Mr. Ramaswamy, who is even further behind in most national polls, made a bold forecast for a come-from-behind upset victory.

“Our strategy is to shock the expectations on Jan. 15,” Mr. Ramaswamy told reporters outside the auditorium, moments after doing 30 push-ups on the cold concrete with a member of Dordt’s football team, which had come out to support him.

Addressing the contentious debate in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Wednesday, where he accused Ms. Haley of being “corrupt” and a “fascist,” Mr. Ramaswamy suggested that Ms. Haley had stooped even lower.

“She called me ‘scum’ and ‘dumb’ in the two debates. I didn’t call her dumb. I did reveal that neither she nor Chris Christie know the first thing about the countries that they supposedly want to send our resources to go fight for,” he said, referring to the former governor of New Jersey who is also running for the Republican nomination.

And while Mr. DeSantis struck a bipartisan tone onstage, saying that he would seek common ground with his political opponents, he also went on the offensive in a conversation after the event, criticizing the donation Ms. Haley recently received from Reid Hoffman, the billionaire Democratic donor who co-founded LinkedIn.

Linda Kreykes, 63, said that she was leaning toward supporting Mr. DeSantis but that she appreciated the comments that Mr. Ramaswamy, who is of Indian descent, made onstage about the shared teachings of Christianity and Hinduism.

“He shared similarities between the two faiths,” she said. “We’re ultimately not so different from each other.”

When it was her turn, Ms. Haley discussed the shooting at a historic Black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, when a white gunman killed nine Black worshipers. Ms. Haley talked about her decision to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse after the shooter was seen in photos posing proudly with the flag and a racist manifesto he had written was uncovered.

Former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina discussed her decision to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse. Credit…Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

But Ms. Haley, in recounting her decision to call for the flag’s removal, criticized the national news media, asserting that they had “wanted to make it about race.”

“Half of South Carolinians saw the Confederate flag as tradition and heritage,” Ms. Haley said. “The other half of South Carolinians saw slavery and hate. This wasn’t about me judging either side.”

A majority of Iowa’s statewide politicians have stayed neutral in the Republican primary, though Gov. Kim Reynolds has endorsed Mr. DeSantis. Mr. Feenstra has indicated that he is considering making an endorsement as well, though he declined to do so on Saturday.

Still, the congeniality of the event left an impression on voters, who said they were sick of the rancor of the debates.

Rather than allowing them to squabble onstage, said Steve Rehder, 59, who is deciding between Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis, “tell the candidates to answer the question and move on.”

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