More than one Republican presidential campaign expressed surprise, even trepidation, when RealClearPolitics broke the news in March that Tucker Carlson would moderate a presidential forum hosted by the Family Leader.
In the spring, several candidates accepted Bob Vander Plaats’s invitation to address his influential group of social and religious conservatives. None knew Carlson would be waiting for them on stage in the summer. “This isn’t prepping for an interview,” said a senior aide to one presidential candidate. “It’s an interrogation.”
Carlson is out at Fox News, half a dozen candidates have entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination since his exit, and whether they like it or not, six White House hopefuls will sit down Friday with the opinionated commentator described by one GOP campaign official as a “fast-talking, new age populist.”
Granted anonymity to speak freely, the aide wasn’t offering an endearing assessment. RealClearPolitics spoke to multiple campaigns scheduled to attend the Des Moines forum. Some love Carlson and see the sit-down as a friendly media opportunity. Others loathe him and still remember how he laid waste to numerous pols on his primetime show.
One by one, Carlson will grill Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.
Regardless of any private hesitation they may harbor, each of the campaigns who spoke with RCP ahead of the event say they take Carlson seriously. Most have spent considerable time preparing. And for good reason.
In Carlson, the candidates will confront a firebrand with a loyal audience but without sympathy for old-guard GOP orthodoxies. Campaigns have scoured his old Fox News monologues, read his private text messages made public because of litigation, and reviewed clips from his new Twitter show. “Am I preparing for this differently than I would for other interviews?” asked a senior operative, scouring the material. “Yeah, of course. I’d be f______ stupid not to. I’d get fired if I didn’t.”
Other candidates who have made appearances on Carlson’s program aren’t as worried. “No special prepping,” an official from a third campaign said of their candidate before adding, “One of the many things that differentiates him from plastic career politicians. Our base can sniff out phony.”
An aide to a fourth campaign also claimed to be unconcerned. “I was worried about this last week,” the official admitted. “I’m not worried now.” While preparing for the sit-down, the aide told his candidate, “Tucker is going to come at you from his worldview.” The advice? “Understand his worldview.”
According to Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation, the fact that Carlson is hosting and candidates are furiously cramming is “tremendous.” In an interview with RCP, Roberts likened Carlson to “this generation’s Rush Limbaugh,” adding that the Fox anchorman turned Twitter personage understands “fissures in the economic consensus, fissures in foreign policy, and most important to me, as some conservatives like to say, ‘what time it is.’”
A favorite phrase of the so-called New Right, that aphorism refers to an emerging sense of urgency and appetite for sweeping action, not dragging and dull academic debates, among more populist-minded conservatives. From his primetime slot, Carlson pioneered much of that effort.
He blasted a business-friendly GOP for cozying up to corporations that outsourced manufacturing jobs. He made mainstream the conservative critique of gender transition surgeries for minors. On social and fiscal policy, Carlson went where more traditional conservatives would not. And his influence was unquestionable.
“The key thing,” Roberts said, “is that Tucker sees himself as having a moral obligation on behalf of the average conservative.” Each of the presidential candidates is like a suitor. Carlson is the protective parent asking their intentions, he said before likening him to a “dad for the conservative movement – we can rest assured that he’s going to ask all the right questions.”
Campaigns are preparing for a universe of questions Carlson could ask. “You have to have rebuttals for almost everything,” one aide groaned about questions that could broadly range from Jan. 6 to agriculture policy. “You have to prepare for the worst,” another official suggested. “My sense is this probably is not going to be over the top on some of the more divisive issues.”
“We’ve done many town halls and events across the early states answering unscripted questions from everyday Americans,” yet another candidate’s spokesman shrugged. “We’re used to answering tough questions and looking forward to a great event.”
Others say regardless of the questions asked or the answers offered, the problem is that Carlson is there at all.
Writing in National Review, Noah Rothman warned that “any competent political campaign with an instinct for self-preservation should avoid Carlson.” Sharing a stage with him for the 2024 field, the conservative writer argued, would be “a tacit countenancing” of his caricature of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky as “sweaty and rat-like, a comedian turned oligarch” or the mainstreaming of his flirtations with vaccine critic Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
“His compulsive penchant for stepping on rhetorical landmines,” Rothman wrote of Carlson, “suggests that any competent political campaign with an instinct for self-preservation should steer clear.”
That advice comes too late for those who have accepted the invitation to speak.
“It was kind of sprung on us,” a representative for one candidate said of the news that Carlson would host. “And then, I’m sure every campaign did the same thing: Have internal conversations about ‘do we go?’ because Tucker is so in the bag for Trump.”
Though invited, the former president will not attend the summit. The absence of the frontrunner, who is now openly feuding with the Iowa congressional delegation, some campaigns are hoping, will create an opportunity for contrast. Hence, the reason to go through with the interview. “We need a president who can take a hit,” a campaign aide explained.
“All the campaigns have been assured by Bob Vander Plaats that he told Tucker the candidates are the focus, not Tucker Carlson. So, we sort of have to trust Bob on this,” the aide added.
Drew Zahn, a spokesman for the Family Leader, told RCP that the organization encouraged Carlson to review the interviews that Frank Luntz conducted at the 2016 summit and “help us keep the spotlight on these national voices and their vision for America’s future.”
“As for timing, I don’t recall the exact dates of every acceptance,” Zahn said of some campaigns’ grumbling, “but these leaders are wise to prepare. This should be a fantastic opportunity for them to reveal who they are and what they believe. A unique stage. And if they seek to set a vision for an entire country, that vision needs to be articulated in a winsome way, no matter who is doing the interview.”
Carlson, for his part, declined to comment, citing recent travel and his own need to prepare for the interviews. But in a well-received speech at the 2022 Family Leader summit, Carlson did offer a rubric to those evangelicals for how they ought to evaluate candidates trying to win their vote.
Voters should prefer candidates who talk about things that matter, Carlson said, citing the health of the American family and what he sees as the dangers of a progressive LGBTQ agenda. They should reward politicians, he continued, who espouse “noble ideologies that produce beautiful results.” Perhaps the most important criteria for any potential Republican president, he concluded, was that they shun elite media: “You need to be really wary of candidates who care what the New York Times thinks.”
On Friday, the rest of the press will be watching along with the audience as Carlson has the 2024 field to himself.