Seated at a table designed to look like Thanksgiving and reminiscent of the Last Supper, seven Republican presidential candidates gathered Friday for an Iowa forum where there were more fireworks from the audience than from a stage that lacked front-runner Donald Trump.
After quelling several outbursts from protesters—including one from a group at the front of the room carrying a large red banner opposing deportations—the candidates spent most of the evening agreeing with each other and condemning President Barack Obama in what was more conservative rally than debate.
The Republicans called for redefining marriage to be between a man and a woman, restricting abortions, and strengthening the traditional family during a forum in Des Moines sponsored by a evangelical conservative advocacy group.
"If the body of Christ rises up in one and votes our values, we can turn this country around," Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, one of the evening's dominant performers, said in his closing remarks.
Another common theme: the call for stricter limitations on refugees entering the U.S. in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and an end to what the candidates all labeled as an overly restrained response by Obama.
"It is neither offensive nor un-American to embrace the simple common-sense proposition that, of course, we should defend this nation and not invite in people who the administration cannot guarantee are not terrorists here to murder innocent Americans," Cruz said.
The Texan, who frequently took command of the stage—talking so long in his closing statement that the moderator reminded him that the event "needs to be over"—said there's a way to balance security with Christian charity in dealing with Syrian refugees.
"They should be resettled in the Middle East in majority Muslim countries," he said. "I'm getting tired of listening to President Obama and Hillary Clinton lecture the American people that we're somehow ungenerous when we're providing for these people and we don't want to risk the safety of our children at home."
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, whose campaign has struggled to find traction, called for heightened screening for those traveling to America even from friendly nations and pointed out that immigrants perpetrated the Boston marathon bombing.
"The two Boston bombers came here as refugees," he said of the 2013 attacks. "It's not going to end until we have better screening of these people."
Obama and Clinton, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential race who served as the president's first secretary of state, took alternating turns as punching bags during the two-hour session. But Obama was the candidates' favorite target as they zeroed in on what they view as the president's reluctance to take on Islamic terrorists.
"He hasn't even defined what victory means," said Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. "He's a bad president."
Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania took a darker view. "This president has started World War III," he said.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson dubbed Obama an "arm-chair quarterback" standing in the way of the military from carrying out their mission in the Middle East. "If I were president—believe me, they would be hit so hard they would never think about attacking us again," he said.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee went even further. "I’d like Barack Obama to resign if he’s not going to protect America and he’s just going to protect the image of Islam," he said.
The event, likely to be the largest gathering of social conservatives in Iowa between now and the Feb. 1 caucuses that start the nomination process, attracted about 1,500 during the winter's first major snow storm in Des Moines.
Those in the audience represented an important bloc of Iowa Republican voters. A Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll in mid-October showed 42 percent of those who are likely to attend the caucuses identify themselves as evangelical Christians.
The gathering was informal by design. Moderator Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, referred to the candidates by only their first names as they sat on one side of a long table.
Asked of the evening's protests bothered him, Huckabee said no. "It doesn’t bother me because I realize that it's a reminder that we live in the greatest country on earth and we allow people to disagree with us," he said. "Those folks aren't going to spend the night in jail. They’re not going to be shot at on the sidewalk. I know there’s some people in the audience who wish they would."
At times, the tone recalled the culture wars of the 1960s. When protesters interrupted a second time, Luntz joked "I feel like this is being conducted in Berkeley," the California university town that's famous for its counter-culture. And Cruz inveighed against recent protests against alleged racial slights at the nation's universities, saying they were started by "leftist, coddled kids—usually with trust funds."
Throughout the evening, the candidates talked about their faith and how it informs their lives.
The ballroom turned silent as former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina spoke haltingly about her daughter Lori, who died in 2009 at age 35 after a long battle with what Fiorina called "the demons of addiction." Her daughter died just as Fiorina was completing treatment after a "tough battle" with breast cancer, she said.
"There is no possibility that I could have endured that loss unless Jesus had been with me all the way," she said. "There is no possibility that our family actually would become stronger through that terrible loss unless Jesus Christ was with us every step of the way."
After talking about the details of planning the funeral, Fiorina concluded: "People of faith make better leaders."
Unlike the formal presidential candidate debates, there was no kiddie table. Santorum, whose low polling numbers have routinely kept him from the main stage at the debates sanctioned by the Republican National Committee, got to sit with his fellow candidates and air one of his trademark themes.
"The breakdown of the family is breaking everything down," Santorum warned, blaming the decline of education on the lack of traditional families. "Today, there are no dads."
The event was organized by the Family Leader, a conservative advocacy group that opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. "I truly believe the next president is going to be around that table tonight," Bob Vander Plaats, who leads the group, said in his welcoming remarks.
Vander Plaats, told Bloomberg this week that he expects to offer his own personal endorsement “after Thanksgiving and before Christmas.” The group may also issue its own selection.
In 2008, Vander Plaats served as Huckabee's state chairman and the former Arkansas governor won the Iowa caucuses. Four years later, he endorsed Santorum two weeks before the caucuses and the former senator from Pennsylvania edged out Mitt Romney to win the contest on a late surge.