FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Self-described "values voters" gathered here Monday to grill Republican presidential candidates, but the forum was most notable for its empty lecterns and its unanswered questions.
The biggest GOP names — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain and Fred Thompson — sat out the Values Voter Presidential Debate, citing scheduling conflicts. That didn't stop questioners from addressing the front-runners who didn't attend.
Giuliani, Romney and McCain were all asked questions about abortion and gay rights. All, of course, went unanswered.
"They will regret the decision," said Jan Folger, president of Faith2Action and a member of the debate host committee. "Because they snubbed us, they will not win, because we will not follow their lead."
In attendance were former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Chicago businessman John Cox, Maryland conservative Alan Keyes and Reps. Ron Paul of Texas, Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Duncan Hunter of California.
The debate was marked more by the candidates' agreement than anything else, illustrated in a round in which they were asked a string of yes-or-no questions.
All seven participants said they would work to keep federal funding away from organizations that perform or promote abortions; to revive an attempt to reform Social Security by offering personal retirement accounts; and to oppose a government-run universal health insurance system.
They all vowed to increase funding for abstinence education, to veto hate crimes legislation and to oppose embryonic stem cell research. They all agreed multiculturalism "weakens and divides" the country.
Candidates were asked about combating radical Islam and their positions on free trade and open borders between Mexico and Canada.
"This country can never, ever ever yield its sovereignty to any other country," Huckabee said. "We do not answer to international law. We answer to our Constitution."
Paul called for an end to U.S. involvement with the United Nations. Hunter derided free-trade agreements as one-sided and not beneficial to the U.S. Brownback defended the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays.
Though all four front-runners cited scheduling conflicts with the debate, Giuliani was in Fort Lauderdale just hours before the debate and Thompson was in Florida over the weekend and is due back Tuesday.