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 was sponsored by the Family Leader, an influential Iowa evangelical group, that is a traditional stop on the Republican presidential campaign trail for candidates seeking to burnish their conservative credentials in the early nominating state.
Some of the hardest questions they 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.”
The war has split the 2024 Republican presidential field, with front-runner Donald Trump, the former president, and his closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, expressing lukewarm support for continued American backing of Ukraine.
Republican candidates who have pledged to back Ukraine, including former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, 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. Trump supporters in particular have been critical of the U.S. role, saying it is not in the country’s national security interests.
Most in the crowd on Friday 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 skipped the Family Leader forum in favor of holding a separate town hall-style event in Iowa next week. That rankled the forum’s organizers, who said Trump was blowing off an opportunity to court Iowa’s evangelical Christians.
Iowa will hold the first Republican nominating contest on Jan. 15, when voters will select their preferences to take on Democratic President Joe Biden in the November 2024 election. Candidates receiving strong evangelical support have won the state’s caucuses contest in recent years.
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, as he has done before, defended his actions and condemned Trump for his role in the Capitol rampage.
“President Trump’s words that day were reckless,” Pence said. “I believe history will hold him accountable.” No applause was heard.
DeSantis, seen in polls as the most viable challenger to Trump, was scheduled to speak later in the day. DeSantis is relying on a victory in Iowa to turbo-charge his campaign and slow Trump’s momentum.
(Reporting by James OliphantEditing by Ross Colvin and Will Dunham)
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