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, it doubled as the Tucker Carlson show.
Most of the Republican field arrived at a packed convention center Friday for an annual forum traditionally billed as a chance for candidates to pitch themselves to Iowa’s influential evangelicals. Instead, several were subjected to a combative stress test conducted by the ousted Fox News anchor whose 9 million-strong Twitter following demonstrates his continued sway over the GOP.
One candidate Carlson did not have the opportunity to grill on stage was former President Donald Trump. The GOP field’s frontrunner skipped the event, citing a scheduling conflict — a move that angered the head of the hosting organization, The Family Leader, a large and politically active organization of evangelical church leaders.
Carlson, who now hosts his own show on Twitter, allowed time for candidates to talk about abortion — one of the most prevalent issues for The Family Leader. But he primarily used his perch to press candidates on issues of importance to him: namely, the United States’ role in the ongoing war in Ukraine.
And he saved most of his animus for former Vice President Mike Pence.
In the most contentious interview of the day, Carlson laced into the underdog candidate over his position on the war and his actions on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol and called for hanging Pence for certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Carlson — a fierce Trump defender who later soured on the ex-president — challenged, interrupted and contradicted the soft-spoken Pence at nearly every turn. As a result, the devout Christian candidate faced hostility and jeers at a summit that would have once provided him with a friendly audience.
“I’ve never used the word insurrection, Tucker,” Pence said when asked if he agreed with that term. He called Jan. 6 “a tragic day” and “a riot that took place at the Capitol,” and sought to strike a middle ground by admonishing the demonstrators’ violence as well as the fatal shooting of Trump backer Ashli Babbitt by a police officer.
“I’ll always believe that by God’s grace, I did my duty that day under the Constitution of the United States of America, and our institutions held,” Pence said to tepid applause, later saying he was “infuriated” by how the Capitol building and law enforcement officers were treated.
Pence tried to pivot to criticizing Black Lives Matter demonstrations, but Carlson grilled him even harder on the subject of Ukraine. He insisted Pence does not take seriously enough Carlson’s claim that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “has raided convents, arrested priests, has effectively banned the Christian denomination of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church within Ukraine, has 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 was “respecting religious liberty.”
Carlson was unmoved. “I sincerely wonder how a Christian leader could support the arrest of Christians for having different views,” he said.
The heated exchange continued throughout the 25-minute interview, with Pence later tweeting that his remarks were taken out of context. A Pence spokesperson declined to comment further on the exchange.
The tense back-and-forth underscored both Pence’s difficulty in the race and the ongoing shift in the Republican Party, whose traditionalists believe the United States should defend Ukraine and move away from Trump’s influence.
But it is clear that 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 audience? That’s a big deal,” Mike Demastus, pastor of the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, said after the event. “I even heard one pastor friend of mine say, ‘His campaign’s over.’”
While several audience members applauded Carlson’s style and focus on the war, establishment Republicans expressed dismay.
“Republicans will live to regret treating Tucker Carlson as a GOP standard-bearer. On nearly every issue of consequence he’s so deeply outside the mainstream: from whitewashing 1/6, to espousing pro-Kremlin misinfo, he is beyond wrong & it will cost us in the ballot box,” tweeted former Trump staffer and “The View” co-host Alyssa Farah Griffin.
Meanwhile, several candidates stayed on Carlson’s wavelength and enjoyed much friendlier interviews.
DeSantis and Ramaswamy — who blamed Jan. 6 on anger people felt over what he described as “pervasive censorship in this country” — seemed to appease Carlson by generally agreeing with his position on the Ukraine war.
Some in the audience mused that the setup was particularly tough for a few candidates, like Pence and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
“I imagine that Vice President Pence would have liked to speak more about his record on defending unborn life,” Chris Hagenow, president of Iowans for Tax Relief and a former state lawmaker, said. “There certainly were a set of questions that he spent most of his time on that he probably would have liked to move off of more quickly.”