Frontrunner Donald Trump did not take center stage at the final Republican presidential debate before Monday’s Iowa caucuses, but social issues did.
In Trump’s absence, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is running second in many Iowa and national polls, bore the brunt of questions asking other candidates to attack his positions. Regarding Trump, Cruz joked, “I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben [Carson], you’re a terrible surgeon. Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way….”
Trump skipped the Jan. 28 debate in Des Moines, Iowa, as the result of a feud with debate cosponsor Fox News and moderator Megyn Kelly. According to the Des Moines Register, the New York businessman, who claims Fox News and Kelly have treated him unfairly, said his decision was cemented by a “childishly written” statement from the network which quipped, “We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president.”
During the debate, Trump held a rally elsewhere in Des Moines and said he raised $5 million for veterans in conjunction with the event. Rival GOP candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum appeared with Trump at the rally, with Huckabee saying “tonight we’re colleagues” in supporting veterans, the Register reported.
Screen capture from Fox News
Huckabee and Santorum participated in an earlier debate for candidates with lower poll numbers.
Meanwhile, the seven candidates participating in the main debate peppered references to faith and social issues throughout the two-hour event. Topics discussed ranged from radical Islam and government funding for Planned Parenthood to religious liberty, abortion and the role of faith in government.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said voters “should hope that our next president is someone that is influenced by their faith” because “Judeo-Christian values” inspire generosity and love of neighbors.
“When I’m president, I can tell you this,” Rubio said, “my faith will not just influence the way I’ll govern as president. It will influence the way I live my life, because in the end, my goal is not simply to live on this earth for 80 years, but to live in eternity with my Creator.”
Earlier in the debate, Rubio responded to moderator Bret Baier’s mention of a TIME article that called him “the Republican savior.”
“Let me be clear about one thing: there’s only one Savior, and it’s not me,” said Rubio, a Roman Catholic who frequently attends a Southern Baptist church in Miami. “It’s Jesus Christ, who came down to earth and died for our sins.”
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said America’s continued liberty “requires a virtuous people,” citing George Washington and Christian social commentator Os Guinness.
“The bottom line,” Paul said, “is we must have virtue, we must have a religious bearing as a nation. The government is not always going to save us. … Without the religious foundation that guides us all, I think we have a great risk of going horribly in the wrong direction.”
In the same answer, Paul said he believes “abortion is always wrong” and proposed state and federal measures to protect unborn babies, including federal legislation stating the constitutional right to life begins at conception.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie referenced abortion when asked by Baier whether he could “name even one thing that the federal government does now that it should not do at all.”
Christie replied, “How about one that I’ve done in New Jersey for the last six years: that’s get rid of Planned Parenthood funding from the United States of America.”
Baier responded, “Anything bigger than that?” and Christie said, “When you see thousands upon thousands upon thousands of children being murdered in the womb, I can’t think of anything bigger than that.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich spoke of protecting the lives of mentally-ill, drug-addicted and poor individuals by devoting $14 billion in Buckeye State funds to their care.
“When I study scripture,” Kasich said, “I know that people who live in the shadows need to have a chance. … The time has come to stop ignoring the mentally ill in this country and begin to treat them and get them on their feet, along with, of course, treating the drug-addicted.”
The candidates spoke on several occasions about how to balance religious liberty with security concerns related to radical Islam.
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson said America should “stop allowing political correctness to dictate our policies” related to radical Islam “because it’s going to kill us if we don’t.”
He said an explanatory memo used as evidence a decade ago during the trial of a terrorism-funding organization known as the Holy Land Foundation revealed terrorists’ view “that Americans would be easy to overcome” with “civilization jihad because they were going to be trying to protect the rights of the very people who were trying to subvert them.”
Carson added, “We are a nation of immigrants. As such, everybody is welcome from any race, any country, any religion if they want to be Americans, if they want to accept our values and our laws. If not, they can stay where they are.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Trump’s proposal to combat Islamic terrorism by temporarily banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. “creates an environment that’s toxic in our own country.”
“The threat is Islamic terrorism,” Bush said. “We need to focus our energies there, not these broad, blanket kind of statements.”
Christie said defeating the terrorist group ISIS is important because “they want to impose their faith upon each and every one of us.” He said in contrast, “No matter what your faith is, that’s what I want you to be able to do.”
Christie addressed religious liberty for Christians in response to a question about Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed last year for refusing to allow her office to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Davis should not personally have been required to issue the licenses, Christie said, but “the person who came in for the license needed to get it.”
Cruz closed the debate by urging Iowa caucus goers to make their votes a matter of prayer.
“The central question in this race is trust,” Cruz said in his closing statement. “Who do you know will kill the terrorists, defend the Constitution and repeal Obamacare? Who do you know will stop amnesty and secure the borders? Who do you know will defend life, marriage and religious liberty? Examine our records, pray on it and I will be honored if you and your family will come caucus for us on Monday night.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)