By James Oliphant
(Reuters) -Republican U.S. presidential contenders attending a forum of Christian conservatives in Iowa that typically focuses on social issues found themselves on Friday having to explain their support for Ukraine in its war with Russia to a skeptical crowd.
The forum in Des Moines, sponsored by the Family Leader, an influential Iowa evangelical group, is a traditional stop on the Republican presidential campaign trail for candidates seeking to burnish their conservative credentials in Iowa. The state will hold the first contest in the race to determine the party’s nominee to face Democratic President Joe Biden in 2024.
Some of the hardest questions the candidates faced were not on popular conservative social issues such as opposition to abortion and transgender rights but rather on foreign policy.
Pushed by moderator Tucker Carlson, the ousted former Fox News host, to justify their stances, former Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina both argued that it remains vital for the United States to push back against Russian aggression. The United States has provided billions of dollars worth of weapons to Ukraine following Russia’s February 2022 invasion.
“Let me tell you, if Vladimir Putin overruns Ukraine, I have no doubt that the Russian military is going to cross the border of a NATO country that our armed forces will have to defend,” said Pence, referring to Russia’s president.
Pence appeared visibly frustrated by Carlson’s assertions that the United States lacked a national interest in the Ukraine war.
Scott also defended assisting Ukraine, arguing that “everything that we do that degrades the Russian military is good for America.”
Former President Donald Trump, the front-runner in the Republican race, skipped the forum and will hold his own town hall-style event next week. But Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a distant second in the polls, appeared.
DeSantis earlier this year suggested that the war was simply a “territorial dispute” before backtracking and labeling Putin a “war criminal.” On Friday, DeSantis sought to make the case that Biden’s administration had not done enough to define America’s interests at stake in Ukraine.
“They are doing a blank-check policy without telling us when we have achieved our objective,” DeSantis said.
The ultimate goal for the United States, DeSantis added, should be “a sustainable peace in Europe,” but he was not specific about how achieve that.
By contrast, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, another candidate, called for an immediate end to the war and for Russia to keep its territorial gains.
Most in the crowd seemed to side with Carlson’s view that the United States should force an immediate truce in Ukraine – and most remained quiet when Pence and Scott disagreed.
Trump also has been sharply critical of U.S. support of the war, charging in a statement on Friday that Biden had engaged in “reckless escalation” in Ukraine by calling up 3,000 reservists from the U.S. military. Biden defeated Trump in the 2020 election.
Republican candidates who have pledged to back Ukraine – including Pence, Scott and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who also spoke on Friday – have failed to gain much traction in opinion polls.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll last month showed that a slight majority of Republicans – 56% – backed U.S. shipments of weapons to Ukraine, compared to 65% of Americans overall.
Carlson also pushed Pence on his role in certifying the 2020 election results in the U.S. Congress even as Trump and his allies made false claims that the election had been stolen through widespread voting fraud. On the day of the certification vote, Trump supporters attacked the Capitol after he told them to “fight like hell” to “stop the steal.”
Pence defended his actions and criticized Trump.
“President Trump’s words that day were reckless,” Pence said. “I believe history will hold him accountable.” No applause was heard.
Iowa’s nominating contest is set for Jan. 15. Candidates receiving strong evangelical support have won the state’s caucuses contest in recent years.
(Reporting by James OliphantEditing by Ross Colvin and Will Dunham)
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