PROVO — The sharpest differences that emerged in Wednesday's televised Utah Debate Commission exchange between the three top candidates in the race to fill the vacant 3rd District seat in Congress seemed to be about President Donald Trump.
Take a question on what should be done to de-escalate rising tensions between the United States and North Korea, asked by a Utah Valley University student during the live broadcast from the KBYU studios on the BYU campus.
"I think I might start by taking Donald Trump's phone away," Democrat Kathie Allen said to laughter, describing the president's tweets aimed at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as "frightening for all Americans."
The first third-party candidate to poll high enough to participate in a commission debate, the new United Utah Party's Jim Bennett, followed up, accusing Trump of "essentially using Twitter to declare war" against someone with nuclear weapons.
"It's just stunning to me where we've gotten in terms of international diplomacy with a man who has not been able to demonstrate the kind of integrity and the kind of dignity that is necessary in the chief executive," Bennett said.
Provo Mayor John Curtis, the frontrunner in the race, did not mention the name of his fellow Republican in the White House in his response, instead urging a "deep look" at the North Korean leader, "a man who will starve his own people."
Curtis said China "holds the keys to controlling this regime and helping us here. Beyond that, this is unfortunately a situation where we've got to look for new options" because sanctions have not worked.
Allen and Bennett both followed up with rebuttals again focused on Trump, but Curtis passed on the opportunity to talk further about North Korea. Afterward, Curtis told reporters the president's tweets are "on the periphery" of the issue.
He said he had confidence in what was being done "behind the scenes" by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others in the administration and that it's important to talk about Trump's behavior "to the extent it's relevant."
There were similar responses to an immigration question, with Allen and Bennett zeroing in on Trump's immigration policies including plans for a border wall, something Curtis had backed in a Facebook ad that was later pulled.
Curtis again did not refer to the president's position, instead talking about the need for compassion in dealing with immigrants including the so-called "Dreamers" brought to the country illegally as children.
BYU political science professor David Magleby, who moderated the hour-long debate, told the Deseret News that Trump is an issue in this and other races around the country.
"I think you can't avoid Trump in this context. And it's not only here," Magleby said. No matter what office is on the ballot, he said, "Trump is part of the discussion. He has to be."
Curtis "covered his bases," the professor said. "He has a tougher road to walk on that question, because there's a set of people who are very much committed to Trump in Utah. He can't afford to alienate them."
But Magleby said there are also members of the Utah GOP who opposed Trump in the 2016 election, where the president won by his smallest margin nationwide despite Utah's status as one of the most Republican states in the nation.
The debate comes the same week ballots were mailed out for the Nov. 7 special election for the remaining year of former Rep. Jason Chaffetz's term. The Republican resigned June 30 and is now a Fox News contributor.
Curtis, endorsed Wednesday by U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has a substantial lead in the polls in the 3rd District, which includes portions of Utah and Salt Lake counties as well as Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan and Wasatch counties.
The mayor, who won the GOP nomination as the most moderate of the three primary candidates, is raising money faster than Allen but still lags behind her overall contribution total.
In the most recent Federal Election Commission filings, Allen has collected a total of nearly $841,000 compared to just over $674,000 for Curtis. But Allen, who is currently running TV commercials, has about $26,000 less cash on hand than Curtis.
Bennett, a former Republican and the son of the late Utah senator, Jim Bennett, reported raising just over $17,000 as his new party's first candidate. The United Utah Party had to sue to get on the special election ballot.
And Bennett was initially not invited to the commission debate because he just missed the threshold for participation, reaching 10 percent support in a poll minus the margin of error. He hit that mark in a second poll ordered by the commission.42 comments on this story
Allen said after the debate she will continue to challenge Curtis on his support for Trump's agenda because the president's "core values, they're not really about Utah values. They're not about compassion. They're not about acceptance or inclusivity."
She told reporters there is a lot of common ground between her and voters in the district, even as "a relatively liberal Democrat." A Cottonwood Heights physician, Allen said that may include her support for universal health care.
But asked about running in what's considered one of the nation's most GOP-leaning districts, Allen bristled a bit.
"Do you think I don’t know that," she said. "Don't you think that every day somebody doesn’t say that to me? Honestly."