One by one, Republican presidential hopefuls took the stage at this year’s Family Leadership Conference for one of their biggest opportunities so far in this cycle: The chance — without Donald Trump in attendance stealing the show — to win over religious conservatives in Iowa, a state increasingly seen as key to having a shot at winning the nomination.
And one by one, they were met with Tucker Carlson, who repeatedly turned to his favorite topics.
Mike Pence sparred with Carlson on January 6 and Ukraine, with the conversation getting noticeably tense as the former Fox News host repeatedly pressed him over claims that the Ukrainian government “has arrested priests.”
“I just told you I asked the religious leader in Kyiv if it was happening. You asked me if I raised the issue and I did,” Pence replied after one lengthy back and forth about Ukraine. During another portion of the conversation, when Carlson suggested Pence is more concerned for Ukraine than American cities, the former vice president pushed back, noting he’d “heard the routine from you before.”
Much of his conversation also focused on January 6, where Pence declined to describe the riot as an “insurrection,” a word Carlson derided on his former Fox News show, but rather opted to call it a “riot.”
Tim Scott was pressed about Carlson’s idea that Mexico is more dangerous than Russia, and dodged when asked if he supports sending cluster munitions to Ukraine (arguing instead that it wouldn’t be an issue if he were in the Oval Office.)
Asa Hutchinson perhaps fared worst of all: He spent much of his time in front of the roughly 2,000 attendees trying to defend his decision to veto a bill that would have barred surgeries and hormone therapy for transgender minors. At one point during that interview, Hutchinson tried to pivot, telling him that he hoped they’d “be able to talk about some issues.”
“Well, this is one of the biggest issues in the country,” Carlson replied to applause.
For some candidates, the opportunity to sit down with one of the most influential commentators in conservative politics proved to be a blessing: After the event, several attendees who spoke with Semafor singled out Vivek Ramaswamy as the candidate who impressed them most throughout the day by directly answering Carlson’s questions.
“I would negotiate the deal that ends the Ukraine war — freeze the current lines of control, yes, that means giving part of the Donbas region to Russia,” Ramaswamy said at one point. “I would make a hard commitment that NATO never admits Ukraine to NATO.”
Nikki Haley, who was largely saved from Carlson’s Ukraine probing, also impressed those watching the cattle call. She pledged to “keep fighting” against voting practices she felt were unfair, like certain uses of mail-in ballots, and cited “irregularities” in the 2020 election, but made clear she did not believe Trump won.
“Do I think that changed the results of the election? No,” she said. “I think President Biden ended up winning the election, but I think at the end of the day it showed we’ve got a lot of work to do in terms of election integrity.”
Ron DeSantis, who wrapped up the evening, was pressed on his changing answers on Ukraine — he said onstage he wanted a “sustainable peace” and opposed “open-ended conflict” — and asked about whether he’d sign Florida’s six-week abortion ban on a national level.
“I’m proud to have been a pro-life governor and I will be a pro-life president, so I mean, of course I want to sign pro-life legislation,” he said.
Carlson’s style grated on some campaigns and observers, who felt he fixated on his own obsessions rather than topics more tailored to an evangelical audience. A Pence advisor told Semafor that they’d prepped the former vice president on both January 6 and Ukraine, but ultimately felt it was somewhat unfortunate that those were the two major topics in front of an audience of religious and social conservatives.
But the former Fox host also repeatedly made news by dropping the typically deferential style from other cattle calls and prodding candidates directly on some of the most sensitive questions with the party’s populist base.
“Tucker was amazing. He was on fire. His questions were incredibly provocative, but important — they were the right ones,” Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, said. “I would be willing to bet that if you had done a straw poll at the end of this and included Tucker’s name in it, he would be top one or two as a presidential candidate.”
Room for Disagreement
Not all attendees loved Carlson’s choice of questions: One couple said they weren’t as focused on Ukraine topics as he seemed to be.
“I think it’s a waste of time to ask a non-person, who can’t do anything about it, what they would do about it,” Scott Steelman, an Iowa voter in attendance, said. “I mean, Tucker Carlson has an issue with it, and he’s making it an issue.”
- Real Clear Politics detailed how the various campaigns prepped for Carlson’s interview, noting that many “expressed surprise, even trepidation” upon learning he’d be the moderator for one of Iowa’s biggest cattle calls yet. A senior aide to one presidential candidate even went so far as to describe the upcoming question and answer session as “an interrogation.”