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GOP Candidates Address Evangelical-Hosted Forum


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Since terrorists attacked Paris, protecting the United States from terrorism has quickly become the most pressing issue to many candidates running for president. There's been intense political debate over the strategy to defeat ISIS and the question of bringing in refugees from Syria - both were on the minds of voters and Republican candidates in Des Moines last night for a forum with The Family Leader, an influential evangelical Christian group. NPR's Sarah McCammon is on the line from Des Moines. Thanks very much for being with us, Sarah.


SIMON: Did matters of security kind of overshadow traditional family values and social issues that we hear at this forum?

MCCAMMON: Well, this is an almost entirely conservative Christian crowd, so faith is always a big focus. But because of those attacks in Paris over the weekend, foreign policy was a major topic of discussion. Faith was still a major theme, though. The event opens and closes with prayer and Scripture's quoted throughout. For example, Florida Senator Marco Rubio stressed the importance of religious freedom and struck a theme that's really big in these circles, which is the idea that the U.S. is a Christian nation.


MARCO RUBIO: This nation was not founded on political principles. This nation was founded on spiritual principles.

MCCAMMON: So the idea of natural inalienable rights is, of course, in our Declaration of Independence, but Rubio talks about those rights coming from God. That's a popular idea with this crowd. Religion was a big topic, but in many ways, it was overshadowed, Scott, by these discussions of national security.

SIMON: Dr. Ben Carson has actually led recent polls in Iowa, but I think it's fair to say that he didn't seem to be speaking with confidence over this past week about a lot of foreign policy issues. How did he manage this last night?

MCCAMMON: Right, his lack of political experience is attractive to a lot of voters who are frustrated with Washington. But it's also probably his biggest weakness. And this week, a couple of his advisers and some other leading Republicans have told reporters they have concerns about Carson's grasp of foreign policy. This is not the week to look vulnerable in that area given what happened in Paris. So, you know, ISIS and terrorism were big themes last night, and one of the questions was how would you respond as president to a terrorist attack? Who would be your first call? A couple of candidates, including Carly Fiorina, said their first action would be to pray, but Carson did not bring up religion. He went straight to strategy, and he said just like when he was a surgeon, he would have a crisis plan in place ahead of time.


BEN CARSON: So you don't really have to sit there and think about what is the first call you're going to make. You activate...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But who is the first call?

CARSON: The activation system, which is usually going to be through the Homeland Security.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So you would call the Homeland Security secretary.

CARSON: Right, and you've already got your cascade of activities in place.

MCCAMMON: So here he's saying, I could handle the job, I'd be prepared and, yes, my resume as a physician is relevant.

SIMON: Donald Trump and Jeb Bush weren't there, right?

MCCAMMON: Yes, both said they had previous engagements. And that's true, but it's also true that this isn't really Trump or Bush's crowd. Trump in particular has some evangelical support, but he's not at ease talking about faith. And Trump has gotten a lot of blowback this week for comments to reporters suggesting he would consider a national database for tracking Muslims in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks. He did walk that back somewhat, saying that a reporter had raised the question and it wasn't his idea. But Jeb Bush jumped on that remark. He told CNBC that it was manipulating people's angst and fears and called it weakness, not strength. So Trump's willingness to speak his mind has endeared him to a lot of fans, but the question is how far he can take that before he pushes it too far.

SIMON: Well, thanks very much, Sarah, for filling us in. NPR's Sarah McCammon speaking with us from Des Moines, Iowa. Thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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