CLEVELAND (Christian Examiner) – Having the largest Republican field in modern presidential history on one stage limited the scope and depth of Thursday's first GOP debate, but social issues still played a major role.
Ten GOP candidates appeared in front of a FoxNews primetime audience for a 2-hour debate at Quicken Loans Arena, hours after seven lower-tier candidates took part in their own one-hour debate.
The 10-member field was chosen by a "poll of polls," and – judging by a sampling of political observers – the debate was worth watching.
Of the 17 candidates, 16 are self-described as being pro-life, including Donald Trump, who came into the night leading the national Republican field by about 11 points, according to RealClearPolitics.com. (George Pataki, a lower-tier candidate, is the lone pro-choicer.)
Trump was asked to explain his pro-life position in light of labeling himself pro-choice 15 years ago. Moderator Megyn Kelly challenged him, saying he once even supported partial-birth abortion.
"I've evolved on many issues over the years. And you know who else has? Ronald Reagan evolved on many issues," Trump said. "And I am pro-life. ... What happened is [that] friends of mine years ago were going to have a child, and it was going to be aborted. And it wasn't aborted. And that child today is a total superstar, a great, great child. And I saw that. And I saw other instances. And I am very, very proud to say that I am pro-life."
Other leading candidates also were asked about their position on abortion. Kelly asked Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker if he is out of the "mainstream" for opposing abortion in cases of the mother's life being in danger.
Well, I am blessed to receive a word from God every day in receiving the Scriptures and reading the Scriptures," Cruz said. And God speaks through the Bible. I'm the son of a pastor and evangelist, and I've described many times how my father, when I was a child, was an alcoholic. He was not a Christian. And my father left my mother and left me when I was just three years old. And someone invited him to Clay Road Baptist Church. And he gave his heart to Jesus and it turned him around. And he got on a plane and he flew back to my mother and me.
"I'm pro-life, I've always been pro-life, and I've got a position that I think is consistent with many Americans out there in that I believe that that is an unborn child that's in need of protection ... and there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother," Walker responded. "That's been consistently proven. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who has a radical position in terms of support for Planned Parenthood, I defunded Planned Parenthood more than four years ago, long before any of these videos came out."
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was asked a very different question by Kelly, who wondered why he supported exceptions for rape and incest when he believes life begins at conception.
"I have never said that. And I have never advocated that," Rubio said. "What I have advocated is that we pass a law in this country that says all human life at every stage of its development is worthy of protection. In fact, I think that law already exists. It is called the Constitution of the United States. ... I believe that every single human being is entitled to the protection of our laws, whether they can vote or not. Whether they can speak or not. Whether they can hire a lawyer or not. Whether they have a birth certificate or not. And I think future generations will look back at this history of our country and call us barbarians for murdering millions of babies who we never gave a chance to live."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also appealed to the Constitution when addressing the issue of abortion.
"A lot of people are talking about defunding Planned Parenthood, as if that's a huge game changer. I think it's time to do something even more bold. I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother's womb is a person at the moment of conception. ... This notion that we just continue to ignore the personhood of the individual is a violation of that unborn child's Fifth and 14th Amendment rights for due process and equal protection under the law.
"It's time that we recognize the Supreme Court is not the Supreme Being, and we change the policy to be pro-life and protect children instead of rip up their body parts and sell them like they're parts to a Buick."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, running second to Trump in the national polls, was asked why he served on the Bloomberg Family Foundation, a philanthropy foundation, when it donated millions of dollars to Planned Parenthood.
I joined the Bloomberg foundation because of Mike Bloomberg's commitment to meaningful education reform," Bush responded. "... Here's my record: As governor of Florida I defunded Planned Parenthood."
Kelly asked him again: "But did you know?"
"No, I didn't know," Bush responded. "My record as a pro-life governor is not in dispute. This is something that goes way beyond politics, and I hope we get to a point where we respect life in its fullest form."
Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was generally viewed as the standout candidate of the lower-tier debate. She wasn't asked specifically about abortion but did mention the life issue.
"I am a conservative because I believe not one of us is any better than any other one of us," she said. "Every one of us is gifted by God, whether it is those poor babies being picked over or it's someone whose life is tangled up in a web of dependence. ... That is the fight we have to have, and we have to undo a whole set of things that President Obama has done that get at the heart of his disrespect and disregard for too many Americans."
Same-sex marriage played a secondary role to abortion in questions, although Ohio Gov. John Kasich was asked how he would explain his opposition to gay marriage to a homosexual son or daughter.
"If one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them and I would accept them," he said. "Because you know what? That's what we're taught when we have strong faith."
Kasich further said that he accepts the Supreme Court's ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
"And guess what -- I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay," Kasich said. "Because somebody doesn't think the way I do, doesn't mean that I can't care about them or can't love them."
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul was asked what he would do as president to protect Christians on the business level who oppose same-sex marriage and who face conflicts with their religious beliefs.
"I don't want my marriage or my guns registered in Washington," Paul said. "And if people have an opinion, it's a religious opinion that is heartedly felt, obviously they should be allowed to practice that and no government should interfere with them."
Toward the end of the debate Kelly asked a faith-related question from a Facebook viewer: "I want to know if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first." U.S. Sen Ted Cruz (Texas) and Walker were among those asked to respond.
"Well, I am blessed to receive a word from God every day in receiving the Scriptures and reading the Scriptures," Cruz said. "And God speaks through the Bible. I'm the son of a pastor and evangelist, and I've described many times how my father, when I was a child, was an alcoholic. He was not a Christian. And my father left my mother and left me when I was just three years old. And someone invited him to Clay Road Baptist Church. And he gave his heart to Jesus and it turned him around. And he got on a plane and he flew back to my mother and me."
Walker said he's "certainly an imperfect man" and "it's only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I've been redeemed from my sins."
"So I know that God doesn't call me to do a specific thing, God hasn't given me a list, a Ten Commandments, if you will, of things to act on the first day," Walker said. "What God calls us to do is follow his will. And ultimately that's what I'm going to try to do."