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For some GOP candidates at the Family Leadership Summit, the biggest challenge was Tucker Carlson

A number of candidates stumbled in interviews with the former Fox News host, while former President Donald Trump skipped out on the event altogether.
Republican presidential candidate former Vice President Mike Pence talks with moderator Tucker Carlson, left, during the Family Leadership Summit, Friday, July 14, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Former Vice President Mike Pence talks with moderator Tucker Carlson, from left, during the Family Leadership Summit, Friday, in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 14, 2023.Charlie Neibergall / AP

DES MOINES, Iowa — Six Republican presidential candidates came to Iowa Friday to win over Christian conservative voters, one of the most powerful voting blocs in the primary.

But as it turned out, they really had to win over only one person: Tucker Carlson.

For some of them, that was pretty tough.

The ousted Fox News host moderated Friday’s Family Leadership Summit, a prominent gathering of conservative Christians attended by several GOP 2024 contenders.

But throughout the program, each candidate saw a different side of Carlson, whose questioning set the mood for the response from the crowd of nearly 2,000.

Many of Carlson’s pet issues — like his skepticism about U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine — emerged prominently, giving fits to candidates who didn’t have the same position.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s time onstage was tense. For Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina it was amicable. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s appearance began strained, but she eventually won over the former Fox News personality and the crowd with a handful of memorable pivots. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and business owner Vivek Ramaswamy were treated downright warmly by Carlson.

But former Vice President Mike Pence may have had the roughest go of it.

Seconds after Pence’s time onstage began, Carlson dove into asking the former vice president whether he would call Jan. 6 “an insurrection.” Pence said he’d “never used the word,” but he called it a riot. He also criticized former President Donald Trump — still a beloved figure among many conservatives in Iowa — for putting Pence's family in danger during his supporters’ storming of the U.S. Capitol. 

Carlson went after him harder, grilling him over his support for Ukraine and bombarding him with questions over whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government was respecting religious liberty. 

Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley walks on stage during the Family Leadership Summit, Friday, July 14, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Former Ambassador Nikki Haley, a Republican presidential candidate, walks on stage during the Family Leadership Summit, Friday, in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 14, 2023.Charlie Neibergall / AP

The exchange escalated markedly when Carlson insisted Zelenskyy had “arrested priests for having views they disagree with.” Pence repeatedly pushed back, saying he had asked religious leaders about this issue during his trip to the country in June and was told it was not happening. Carlson refused to allow Pence to move on, saying, “I can’t let you glide over the question of the treatment of Christians and clergy.”

Finally, the mild-mannered Pence raised his voice to get a word in.

“The problem is that you won’t accept my answer,” he said.

The interaction elicited boos from the audience.

Hutchinson’s interactions with Carlson were similarly fraught, with the two tussling over transgender rights and Covid vaccines.

Right off the bat, Carlson asked the former Arkansas governor if his stance had changed from when he vetoed a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth in 2021. Hutchinson defended his position, saying that while he agreed minors should not have transgender surgery, he felt the bill went too far. Carlson refused to relent, even after Hutchinson asked him to.

“Tucker, I hope that you will be able to talk about some issues,” he said, before Carlson interrupted him.

“This is one of the biggest issues in the country, and I think I would, every person in this room would agree,” he said.

Tensions escalated further when the former Fox News host pivoted to vaccines, asking how many shots Hutchinson had received.

Instead of answering, Hutchinson shot back, “How many Covid shots did you take?” 

“Zero” Carlson retorted to big applause.

Haley seemed to win over Carlson — but only after overcoming an uneasy start.

After Carlson asked if there had been “irregularities” in the 2020 election, she stumbled into saying that “President Biden ended up winning the election” — an acknowledgement that elicited groans from members of the audience.

But when she skillfully maneuvered a question from Carlson about “who blew up the Nord Stream pipeline” — he was insinuating without evidence that the U.S. had destroyed the key Russian asset, an unsubstantiated claim he often pushed on his Fox News show — into a lighter conversation about the still-unknown identity of the culprit who left behind cocaine in the White House, the audience and Carlson both lit up with glee.

“I strongly believe this is a cover-up for either [Joe Biden’s son] Hunter or someone very close to the president,” she said, prompting laughter and applause.

The tone of the exchange improved markedly after that, and Carlson didn’t prevent her from delivering a brief stump speech at the end of her remarks — something other candidates didn’t do.

Ramaswamy, who appeared frequently on Carlson’s since-canceled Fox News show (he even announced his candidacy on the program) and the former host talked like old friends, and Scott, who was the first candidate to go onstage with Carlson, received broadly amicable treatment, too.

And unlike Pence and Hutchinson, during moments where Carlson attempted to pin him on specific answers or insert controversy, Scott replied gently.

For example, early in the conversation, Carlson tried to nail Scott on the specific number of undocumented immigrants he’d deport if elected president.

After receiving pushback from Carlson on a nonanswer, Scott deflected with a bit of flattery.

“In order for us to achieve the goals that this really brilliant guy on the stage, and I’m not talking about myself, wants us to achieve, “ he said, “we have to identify where they are, and I’m not going to pretend that that will be an easy task, but that should be the response.”

DeSantis was the last to go up with Carlson, but he was the first candidate the commentator asked directly about abortion. The omission was noticeable because a centerpiece of the day was Gov. Kim Reynolds’ signing of a six-week abortion ban.

DeSantis, who also signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida, didn’t receive much pushback after he dodged Carlson’s questions about whether he would sign a similar federal ban if elected president.

By not inviting other conservative candidates to tout their own records on abortion restrictions, Carlson effectively stripped them of the ability to advertise what could have been, for some, their strongest appeal to Christian voters.

Pence — who throughout his career cultivated a reputation as a staunch abortion opponent — seemed particularly frustrated about that turn of events.

“I regret that we didn’t have very much time during my time onstage to talk about progress for life or issues impacting the family,” he told reporters following his time on the stage.

Missing from the summit was former President Donald Trump, who skipped the event — an absence that, ironically, may not have hurt him.

While Trump remains popular among Iowa Republican voters, his latest attacks on Reynolds would have likely invited scrutiny.

Instead, his absence allowed voters, and Carlson, to focus on his rivals for the nomination — many of whom, because of the commentator’s approach, stumbled.

“Maybe it’s good President Trump isn’t here,” Kari Lake told reporters in between candidate appearances.

The Trump ally who lost the Arizona race for governor last year said it would have been “extra embarrassing” for Trump’s competitors for the nomination “because we already know that he has proven himself with all of these issues.”

“These guys,” she added, were “stumbling and bumbling on the stage.

“They can’t even answer their way out of a technical question,” she said.

CORRECTION (July 15, 2023, 07:59 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when abortion is banned under the law Desantis signed in Florida. It is after six weeks, not after six months.