OREM — Eleven Republican candidates running to replace U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz said Friday they'd all like to scale back the U.S. government's spending and repeal President Barack Obama's health care law if they're elected.
The candidates participated in two debates Friday night at Mountain View High School, divided up by how they polled among GOP delegates who will winnow the crowded field during Saturday's convention.
During the top-tier debate, the candidates made almost no mention of an issue dominating Washington — the widening probe into Russia's election meddling, and possible ties between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russia.
One candidate, former state lawmaker Chris Herrod, referenced the investigations in his opening statement as he discussed his time teaching at universities in Ukraine in the 1990s and his familiarity with the former Soviet Union.
He called Russian President Vladimir Putin "a very good chess player" who has out-maneuvered the press.
"We need to get over the talks of collusion and actually get to the issues at hand," Herrod said, which was met with applause.
A few candidates spoke of their admiration of Chaffetz, a Republican known for his hard-charging investigation of Democrat Hillary Clinton. When he announced his intention to resign at the end of June, citing a desire to be with his family, the pending vacancy in the heavily Republican 3rd Congressional District drew a number of lawmakers, lawyers and others who jumped at a chance to run in an open race considered a sure bet for the GOP.
The top-ranked candidates, which also included Provo Mayor John Curtis, state Sens. Deidre Henderson and Margaret Dayton, and Salt Lake City lawyer Stewart Peay, all spoke of wanting to repeal Utah's new Bears Ears National Monument or curbing the law that Obama used to declare the 1.3-million acre monument in December.
Environmental groups and a coalition of tribal leaders say it gives needed protections to ancient ruins and sacred tribal lands, but Many Utah Republicans consider the monument an overly broad, unnecessary layer of federal control that will hurt local economies by closing the area to new energy.
Henderson said the monument declaration was "outrageous" and an "egregious land grab."
Dayton said the 1906 Antiquates Act, which allows presidents to declare monuments, has been abused by presidents and locked up too much land, including another southern Utah monument, the 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante.
That monument, created in 1996, closed off too much land that could have helped the local economy, including one of the country's largest known coal reserves, Dayton said.
Peay said if he was elected, one of his first moves would be to introduce a bill giving Utah an exemption from the Antiquities Act similar to carve-outs requiring Congress to approve any new monuments in Alaska or Wyoming.
The candidates were all asked which federal programs they'd cut and gave very similar answers, describing deep cuts or the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education and reforms to Social Security.
The six lower-polling candidates who appeared in the earlier debate largely agreed on the issues and earned applause for calls to repeal Obama's health care law and balance the federal budget.
Those candidates included political activist Debbie Aldrich, state Rep. Brad Daw of Orem, lawyer Damian Kidd, defense contractor Paul Fife, Murray resident Shayne Row and Keith Kuder, an emergency roadside assistance advocate.
The debates were organized by a group of Republican delegates who say they need to vet the candidates before allowing one or two to advance to a primary.
Becky Pirente, a state GOP delegate who lives outside of District 3 and organized the event, declined to release the results of the poll conducted of the more than 1,000 delegates eligible via robocall earlier this week amd used to rank the candidates.
"We're not in the business of trying to influence," she said, describing the 11 candidates competing for the party's nomination as falling "quite naturally into two different tiers."
Pirente said she and other individuals she would not name paid for the poll.
Republicans will trim the packed field with Utah's unique system for picking political nominees, offering candidates two paths to compete.
State law allows candidates to compete for the votes of a small group of party faithful at conventions, like Saturday's event. Or they can gather voter signatures and earn a place on the ballot in a primary election where they will face a bigger, more moderate group of voters.
Most of the dozen Republicans running for Chaffetz's seat opted to compete for the votes of about 1,000 GOP delegates at Saturday's convention.
The convention winner will advance to an Aug. 15 primary election to compete against candidates who have gathered voter signatures. At least one candidate, Curtis, is taking both routes.
Tanner Ainge, a son of Boston Celtics general manager and former BYU basketball standout Danny Ainge, is skipping the convention but competing in the primary election. Because he is skipping the delegate convention, Ainge wasn't invited to participate in Friday night's debate.
Utah Democrats will narrow their field of three candidates at their own convention Saturday.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche