1 of 20
Trent Nelson
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and state Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, meet for a debate at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. The two are contending for Utah's 2nd Congressional District seat.

CEDAR CITY — The candidates for Utah's 2nd Congressional seat found common ground on a number of divisive issues in their first public debate Thursday night.

Straight out of the gate, the debate at Southern Utah University probed Rep. Chris Stewart, the Republican incumbent, and state Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, on hot-button issues including Common Core, same-sex marriage, public lands and conflict in the Middle East.

Eric Kirby, executive director at SUU's Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics & Public Service, called the debate a success for both Stewart, who is pursuing a second term in Congress, and Robles, who has served in the Utah Legislature since 2008. Both parties "played it safe" as they gave polite, comprehensive answers, he said.

Safe answers, however, may hurt Robles in the long run. In talking with the crowd after the debate, Kirby found many didn't think the Democrat did enough to distinguish herself.

"From an analytical standpoint, I think Sen. Robles will have to continue to try and show how she is unique for this position and how her views are separate and different enough from Rep. Stewart's on some of these big issues," Kirby said.

The candidates found little to agree on, however, when it came to same-sex marriage, just days before the U.S. Supreme Court could consider hearing Utah's appeal for its state amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Robles, who answered the question first, reiterated her stance that same-sex marriage should be allowed in the state.

"I don't see why people should limit access to what other people have just based on their sexual orientation," she said, acknowledging that time — and likely the Supreme Court — will ultimately decide.

Stewart countered that decisions about marriage in Utah should be made in Utah, regardless of how the question plays out in other states.

"I believe marriage is between one man and one woman. That is my moral teaching and that's my faith teaching. I don't know how I could possibly turn my back on that," he said.

While both candidates agreed Utah should take an active role in managing public lands, Stewart and Robles disagreed on how much involvement the federal government should have.

"Let us manage these lands," Stewart said. "I could show you bureaucrats in Washington D.C. who are making decisions about Utah who have never set foot in our state."

Robles contended there are questions as to who the land truly belongs to, asking for added emphasis on protecting public access to land in Utah.

"The purpose is really for us to manage those lands where can exchange them, when needed, to make sure we're funding our school trust fund, which is critical," she said, citing a bipartisan agreement between former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennet and former Congressman Jim Matheson.

Approaches on immigration reform were also a dividing question, which Stewart said should begin at the border while Robles advocated for comprehensive reform with eventual citizenship for people already in the United States.

Stewart's answers were often critical of President Barack Obama, specifically regarding the Affordable Care Act and cautious action against terrorist groups in the Middle East, while Robles decried an "incompetent Congress" and their inability to overcome gridlock on major issues like immigration and the federal budget.

Jill Peterson, a Cedar City resident, said she went to the debate because she is familiar with Stewart's books but also wanted to learn about Robles' stances.

"I was not familiar with the other candidate, the challenger, so it was fun to see her and meet her — a woman and a minority," Peterson said.

Her husband, Ivan Peterson, said he appreciated the questions presented in the debate.

"We have not really been informed as much in the past and we had the opportunity to come tonight and took advantage," Ivan Peterson said.

Wade Hess, a senior biology major from Fielding, believes it's important for students to be involved in the political process

"We're typically a lot younger than the rest of the voters out there, but the decisions that are made today are things that we're going to have to live with for the rest of our lives and arguably longer than the other people that are voting. So I think it's important that we know what's happening and make our voice be heard," he said.

The second event for the year-old Utah Debate Commission was attended by about 175 students and community members and was streamed online, featuring a number of questions submitted by Utahns using the commission's website. The next debate, between Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Democratic challenger Charles Stormont, will be hosted by Brigham Young University on Oct. 1.

A complete schedule is available at utahdebatecommission.org.

Contributing: Nataly Burdick

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com, Twitter: McKenzieRomero