Bob Vander Plaats, the conservative evangelical kingmaker in Iowa politics, now knows what happens when you hand your Republican presidential display to Tucker Carlson.
Jesus is out. Vladimir V. Putin is inside.
Mr. Carlson was tasked with interviewing six Republican presidential hopefuls at the Family Leadership conference in Des Moines on Friday. As a result, the Russian invasion of Ukraine became the dominant topic of debate, on a day when Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa used the event to sign into law an almost complete ban on abortion.
In the hands of Mr. Carlson, the recently fired former Fox News anchor, Ukraine became the bad actor in the conflict, not Russia.
The most heated exchange came when Carlson interviewed former Vice President Mike Pence before a packed audience at the Des Moines convention center. Mr. Pence was berating the Biden administration for being too slow to provide Ukraine with advanced weaponry.
“We promised them 33 Abrams tanks in January. I heard again two weeks ago in the Ukraine, they still don’t have them,” Pence said. “We have been telling them that we will train their F-16 pilots, but now they say maybe in January.”
Mr. Carlson chimed in, to the delight of much of the audience. “Wait, I know you’re running for president, but are you worried that the Ukrainians don’t have enough American tanks?” he asked, in his characteristic confrontational style.
In large measure, Mr. Carlson called Ukraine an American “client state,” accused Ukraine’s Jewish leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, of persecuting Christians, and argued adamantly that Mr. Pence had been ripped off, despite the evidence to the contrary.
Pence was not alone. Sen. Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, argued that by downgrading Russia’s military, US aid to Ukraine was making the United States stronger and more secure.
Mr. Carlson responded with a dismissive response signature.
“Russia’s total body count in the United States is close to zero; I don’t know anyone who has been killed by Russia,” Carlson said. “I personally know people who have been killed by Mexico,” she said, adding: “Why is Mexico less of a threat than Russia?”
His first target fared no better, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who led border security under former President George W. Bush, who found himself arguing to Carlson that bombing Mexican drug cartels could be problematic since it would be a act of war against a friendly neighboring state.
The split in the Republican Party between traditional conservatives who favor the projection of US military power and a new, more isolationist wing that leans toward Russia is nothing new. But the Family Leadership Summit was supposed to be a showcase for Christian values, where social issues like abortion and transgender rights were expected to take center stage.
But by turning Carlson into something of a master of ceremonies, Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, which organized the summit, gave the crowd a wild card. When the spotlight shifted to Nikki Haley, former South Carolina Governor Eric Teetsel, the Heritage Foundation’s vice president of government relations, praised her saying that she “was still willing to go on stage” after previous appearances. .
Mr. Pence had his regrets after his appearance. “I’m sorry we haven’t had a lot of time during my time on stage to talk about life progress or issues affecting family,” he said, before adding, “I’m never really surprised by Tucker Carlson.”