The majority-conservative audience of more than 500 people loved it. It cheered and whistled after each response, offering the loudest claps for the Republicans: Provo Mayor John Curtis, former state Rep. Chris Herrod and investment adviser Tanner Ainge.
The three candidates are competing in the Aug. 15 primary for one GOP spot on the general election ballot, where the winner will face Democrat Kathie Allen (who said she did not receive an invitation to join Tuesday's debate while the host said she did not respond).
Though the Republicans did not differentiate themselves much on platforms — the three said after the event that the questions, focused mostly on economics, wouldn't allow for it — they did offer slightly different takes on what experience makes them stand out.
Curtis focused his answers on his track record in Provo — with a decidedly home field advantage because the debate held at the city's Covey Center for the Arts. He touted his efforts to lower property taxes and reduce debt, as well as to return power to local governments for decisions on health care and education.
He offered the strongest rebuke of the Affordable Care Act, while condemning the GOP for not having a more viable plan ready to replace it.
"As Republicans, we should all be just a tad bit embarrassed that for years and years we complained about Obamacare and when we had our moment in the sun where we control the House and the Senate, we weren't ready," he said. "We put together a half-baked bill."
Curtis, who ranked first among the conservative candidates in a recent Utah Policy poll, supports the health care amendment proposed by Sens. Mike Lee and Ted Cruz that would give insurance companies more flexibility in offering cheaper and less comprehensive plans. While all of the other candidates also voiced favor for the proposal — Herrod said it's "making the bill much better" and promoted his endorsement from Cruz — Ainge slightly dodged the question.
While he agrees with dumping Obamacare, Ainge focused his answer more on giving states control of running a free-market system. That method, he said, would help curb spending — a large part of his platform, given his experience as a portfolio manager.
"We have to reintroduce choice and competition back into the health care marketplace," he said to a loud and hearty applause.
Ainge calls himself a "principled conservative" and proposed a significant overhaul to the American tax system, including reducing the number of brackets from seven to three. He also said the problem with federal debt isn't a lack of revenue (i.e. not collecting enough taxes), but in spending.
Meanwhile, Herrod labels himself a "platform Republican" and spoke about his experience in the Legislature. His responses largely criticized the federal government for being too involved and overstepping its roles outlined in the Constitution. He lamented that states, including Utah, don't have enough control of their "tremendous natural resources" and energy production.
"Let Utahns make those decisions," he shouted. Herrod, who won the Republican Party's nomination in June, responded to several other questions on various topics with the same response: Get the government out of the way.