SANDY — President Donald Trump may not have been mentioned much during a debate Friday among four of the candidates seeking to fill the vacant 3rd District seat in Congress, but he still may have had an impact.
Both Democrat Kathie Allen and the new United Utah Party's Jim Bennett brought up the controversial GOP leader several times during the 90-minute debate as a reminder that the Republican in the race, John Curtis, supports the Trump agenda.
The debate, sponsored by the ABU Education Fund and the University of Utah's John R. Park Debate Society, also included Libertarian Joe Buchman. It was held in the Eastmont Middle School auditorium and attracted several hundred people.
Curtis avoided talking about Trump, instead focusing on the successes he's had as mayor of Provo and even referring to a fifth-grade report card that chided him for talking too much.
"Look at my record," said the frontrunner in the district that's considered one of the most Republican in the country, pledging to continue building unity if elected. "It begins with valuing other people's opinions."
Allen, a Cottonwood Heights physician, made a point of saying she is a Democrat and stands for compassion, community and cooperation. But she said she would be tough on Trump even if other Democrats in Congress aren't.
"We haven't talked a lot tonight about Donald Trump. But he needs to be stood up to and I'm ready to do that. I'm ready to call him out for lying, for his racist tendencies, his sexist tendencies, for his xenophobia," Allen said.
Earlier in the debate, she referred to a tweet she'd sent out this week with side-by-side pictures of the white nationalists toting tiki torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Statute of Liberty, telling Curtis to "Pick a torch."
Curtis' campaign responded by saying Allen was insinuating that he was a white supremacist, "a ridiculous charge and a new level of desperation." Curtis did not talk about the tweet during Friday's debate.
Afterward, Curtis told reporters it wasn't his place to "clean that up. Trump has distractions. That's a distraction. If anybody can't see the hypocrisy of criticizing Donald Trump for that and then doing it themselves, I don't need to point that out."
Another recent campaign controversy also came up Friday: a Curtis ad on Facebook urging support for building the wall sought by Trump along the U.S. border with Mexico. Curtis pulled the ad and apologized.
Bennett, the son of the late U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, said people "exploded in outrage" over the ad, especially coming from a candidate they saw as more moderate than the president.
Curtis took one of the few swings of the evening, saying too many politicians "do what Mr. Bennett has just done, which is poke and prod for divisiveness" rather than look for better ideas on immigration, including improving border security.
Post-debate, Bennett said "the specter of Trump was hanging over everything that was said. The fact that John Curtis says he supports the Trump agenda and then tries to distance himself from the specifics ... is increasingly frustrating."
He said there's no way to separate how Utahns feel about Trump from the election. Although the president won Utah with 45 percent of the vote, it was his lowest margin of victory in the 2016 presidential race.
Allen said after the debate Trump is a focus because the GOP has not "demonstrated any ability at all to hold him accountable." She said sending another Republican to Congress won't make a difference, "no matter what a great guy he is."
Curtis told reporters that when he says he supports the Trump agenda, "I'm talking about solving health care. I'm talking about solving immigration. I'm talking about tax reform."
He said those are the issues he's hearing from voters in the 3rd District, which includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties as well as Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan and Wasatch counties.
"The don't say Trump and they don't say (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi," Curtis said.
Asked by reporters about Trump's new executive order ending health care subsidies available under the Affordable Care Act better known as Obamacare, Curtis said that's the president's style.
"That's a little bit of the way he negotiates and does things, right. He's going to force Congress to do (its) job," Curtis said. He said Congress "should be the ones embarrassed" by the failed attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare.
He also said difficulties in Washington, D.C., were nothing new.46 comments on this story
"I don't care who your president was. I don't care what all the agendas are," Curtis said. "It's been far worse than this multiple times. We'll work through this. That's why we need to send people back there who are going to work hard."
Buchman, who is lagging in the polls behind the other three, used his invitation to participate in the debate to talk about libertarian ideals, including freedom from government interference in people's lives.
The special election for the remaining year of former Rep. Jason Chaffetz's term in Congress is Nov. 7. There are eight candidates vying to replace Chaffetz, who resigned June 30 and is now a Fox News contributor.