DES MOINES, Iowa — On paper, it was a chance for presidential candidates to appeal to conservative Christians in the nation’s first caucus state. In practice, he doubled Tucker Carlson’s show.
Most Republicans arrived Friday at a crowded convention center for an annual forum traditionally billed as a chance for candidates to introduce themselves to influential Iowa evangelicals. Instead, many have been subjected to a combative stress test led by the ousted Fox News anchor whose 9 million Twitter followers demonstrate his continued influence on the GOP.
One candidate Carlson didn’t get a chance to grill on stage was former President Donald Trump. The GOP field favorite skipped the event, citing a scheduling conflict — a decision that angered the head of the host organization, The Family Leader, a large, politically active organization of evangelical church leaders.
It also offered second-placed Ron DeSantis and lower-ranked candidates like Sen. Tim Scott, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy an opening to make further inroads in Iowa.
Carlson, who now hosts his own Twitter show, gave the contestants time to talk about abortion — one of The Family Leader’s most pervasive issues. But he has primarily used his perch to lobby candidates on issues important to him: namely, the role of the United States in the ongoing war in Ukraine.
And he kept most of his animosity for former Vice President Mike Pence.
In the most controversial interview of the day, Carlson dipped into the underdog candidate on his stance on the war and his actions on January 6, 2021, when Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol and called to hang Pence for certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Carlson — a fierce Trump defender who later embittered the ex-president — challenged, interrupted and softly contradicted Pence at nearly every turn. As a result, the staunch Christian candidate faced hostility and ridicule at a summit that would once have provided him with a friendly audience.
“I never used the word insurrection, Tucker,” Pence said when asked if he was okay with that term. He called Jan. 6 a “tragic day” and “a riot that took place on Capitol Hill,” and sought to find common ground by berating the violence of protesters as well as the deadly shooting of Trump supporters, Ashli Babbitt, by a police officer. .
“I will always believe that by the grace of God, I did my duty that day under the Constitution of the United States of America, and our institutions held,” Pence said to lukewarm applause, saying later that he was “furious” at the way the Capitol building and law enforcement officers were treated.
Pence tried to pivot to criticize the Black Lives Matter protests, but Carlson grilled him even more about Ukraine. He insisted that Pence does not take Carlson’s claim seriously enough that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “attacked convents, arrested priests, effectively banned the Christian denomination of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine , persecuted Christians”.
Pence said he raised these issues with a religious leader during a recent visit to Kyiv and was “assured” that the Ukrainian government “respects religious freedom.”
Carlson was impassive. “I sincerely wonder how any Christian leader could support the arrest of Christians for having different opinions,” he said.
The heated exchange continued throughout the 25-minute interview, with Pence later tweeted his words were taken out of context. A spokesperson for Pence declined to comment further on the exchange.
The tense back-and-forth underscored both Pence’s difficulty in the race and the shift underway within the Republican Party, whose traditionalists believe the United States should defend Ukraine and move away from influence. of Trump.
But it’s clear that the influence is here to stay.
“Tucker Carlson is good at what he does. I think some of Pence’s responses — for a vice president to get boos, audible boos, from the public? That’s a big deal,” Mike said. Demastus, pastor of Church of Christ Fort Des Moines, after the event: “I even heard a pastor friend of mine say, ‘His campaign is over.'”
While several members of the public applauded Carlson’s style and focus on the war, establishment Republicans expressed dismay.
“Republicans will regret treating Tucker Carlson as a GOP standard bearer. On almost every major issue, he is so deeply outside the mainstream: from whitewashing 1/6 to embracing pro-Kremlin disinformation, he is beyond wrong and it will cost us at the ballot box », tweeted Alyssa Farah Griffin, former Trump staffer and co-host of “The View”.
During this time, several candidates stayed on Carlson’s wavelength and enjoyed much friendlier interviews.
DeSantis and Ramaswamy – who on January 6 blamed people’s anger over what he described as “pervasive censorship in this country” – seemed to appease Carlson by generally agreeing with his stance on the war in Ukraine.
Some in the audience thought the setup was particularly difficult for a few candidates, like Pence and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.
“I imagine Vice President Pence would have liked to talk more about his record in defending unborn life,” said Chris Hagenow, president of Iowans for Tax Relief and a former state legislator. “There was definitely a series of questions that he was spending most of his time on and that he probably would have liked to move on to more quickly.”