FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – With “invisible” candidates who failed to show up getting grilled with questions, hundreds of empty seats, not a single mainstream television network on hand, and the name of God invoked countless times, the “unseen world” clearly dominated last night’s Republican presidential debate in South Florida.

High-profile contenders Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson all chose not to participate, though each had an empty podium with his name displayed on stage to emphasize his absence.

Janet Folger, organizer of the Values Voter Debate, stands in front of empty podiums before the event Sept. 17, 2007, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Four of the 11 lecterns remained empty during the debate as so-called “top-tier” candidates declined to participate. (WND photo)

“When you run for president, you can run but you can’t hide,” quipped WND Editor Joseph Farah, moderator of the Values Voter Debate, prompting a large round of applause.

Farah noted a second debate had been planned for next week to query the Democrats, but all of the office-seekers from that party declined to participate.

“Form your own judgments about that,” he said.

Before the GOP debate kicked off at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, a Christian choir sang songs and numerous prayers were said, specifically mentioning the names of the Father and Jesus.

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee in the moments following the Values Voter Debate Sept. 17, 2007, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (WND photo)

“I cannot imagine [MSNBC’s] Chris Matthews opening in prayer,” joked former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and one of seven Republican candidates present for the event. He later told WND the absence of the four others who failed to show would hurt them politically.

“I think it will, and frankly, I think it should. These are people that have every reason and right to hear from the candidates who want their vote,” Huckabee said. “But if they’re not going to listen to them, answer their questions and come to their events, then it’s pretty evident that they don’t really respect them.”

Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, best known for his strong stand against illegal immigration, expressed his views on social issues.

“There is a degradation of our society, especially the morals of our society,” he said. “Bill Clinton redefined morality to the level of an alley cat.”

Tancredo also said “we absolutely have to have a constitutional amendment” defining marriage as being between one man and one woman.

“We have to remember that we are always just one kooky judge away from actually having homosexual marriage forced on all the rest of us,” he explained.

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul sits on stage to discuss issues in the moments following the Values Voter Debate Sept. 17, 2007, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (WND photo)

But Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said he didn’t see any need for another constitutional amendment.

“I think we have fallen into a trap that we have to redefine marriage,” Paul said. “Why don’t you just tell them, ‘Look it up in the dictionary to find out what marriage is?'”

He said the Defense of Marriage Act was good enough and if further regulations were necessary, “put it at the state level like the Constitution says.”

Paul explained getting marriage licenses only came about in recent history for health reasons.

“True Christians,” he said, “believe that marriage is a church function. It’s not a state function. I don’t think you need a license to get married.”

Yet another constitutional amendment was proposed by former Reagan diplomat Alan Keyes, who just jumped into the presidential race late last week. In his quest to eradicate abortion, he says he’ll champion an amendment “that makes it crystal clear that the right to life of all human beings from conception to natural death must be respected. It’s simple, it’s clear, it must be done.”

Keyes also said the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution states “the ultimate aim of our government is to ‘secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.’ Posterity includes many we can’t even imagine who have not yet been born. Surely, it includes those who are sleeping in the womb. I would issue an executive order immediately granting the full protection of the presidency and every element of the executive branch to the life in the womb.”

Pro-life sentiments were common among the candidates on stage.

Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas stated: “I want to be the president to appoint the justice that is the final vote that we need to overturn Roe versus Wade,” the 1973 Supreme Court decision that in effect has led to the deaths of an estimated 40 million unborn children in America.

“Roe is not in the Constitution. There is not in the Constitution a fundamental right to an abortion,” Brownback said. “It’s time to end this.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter of California explained, “If a judicial candidate can look at a sonogram of an unborn child and not see a valuable human life, I will not appoint that judicial candidate to the federal bench. It’s as simple as that.”

When asked later about his faith, Hunter joked, “I don’t belong to an organized denomination, I’m a Baptist,” with hearty laughter from those in attendance.

Republican presidential candidate John Cox discusses issues in the moments following the Values Voter Debate Sept. 17, 2007, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (WND photo)

Candidate John Cox, a little-known Chicago businessman, was asked why people should take his run for the White House seriously.

“Are we gonna focus on substance, or are we gonna focus on celebrities?” Cox said. “If we want to just elect celebrities, maybe we ought to elect Paris Hilton or Jesse Ventura or O.J. Simpson. He’s in the news a lot lately.”

Cox, who has run real estate management, venture capital, and law and accounting firms, said he wants to bring back competence to government.

“For 20 years, we’ve had career political families – Bushes and Clintons. I think in a nation of 300 million people, we can find somebody else besides a Bush and a Clinton to run this country.”

All the candidates said they’d support legislation ensuring schools forfeit federal funding if they expose children to homosexual propaganda.

They unanimously indicated they would sign an executive order to protect the right of military chaplains to pray in Jesus’ name, and also said they’d stand solidly behind Israel not forfeiting its land for peace.

In a unique and at times humorous segment of the three-hour debate, live questions were asked of the four candidates who decided against taking part.

The first came from Teresa Ippoliti, a woman who says as an unborn child, her would-be abortionist “failed to kill” her.

“Mayor Giuliani, your position on abortion would have left me dead,” Ippoliti said. “Now that you see me, Mayor Giuliani, do you honestly believe the abortionist had a right to kill me?”

“No answer,” someone yelled from the audience after a sustained silence, as eyes focused on the empty lectern with Giuliani’s name on it.

“Governor Romney, it looks like you lost some weight,” clowned Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, as he addressed the empty Romney podium before asking him why people should trust the former Massachusetts chief executive “after you spent so much of your career aggressively promoting anti-life positions.”

Again, total silence.

The missing contenders said they could not attend the debate due to scheduling conflicts, but Giuliani was in town only hours before the event, and Thompson was in the Sunshine State over the weekend and is slated to return today.

Some WND readers e-mailed comments about their absence.

Rick Smith of Webb City, Mo., said: “My wife received a call today
from the Fred Thompson campaign asking for money, and she let the
caller have it! She specifically mentioned Mr. Thompson’s absence
from tonight’s debate and that we wouldn’t be voting for candidates
who can’t find the time to appear before voters who believe that
character and values matter. Oh, it made my day.”

But Michael Barrett of Strattanville, Pa., wrote:

“They are not gutless. They just see this ‘debate’ for what it is, a ‘Christian’ ambush of the top four candidates with Farah as the hired hitman/moderator. You want to have an honest debate with a fair moderator, such as [Sean] Hannity or Brit Hume, [then] they would have shown up. But none of them are going to walk into this public execution disguised as a debate so your second-tier candidate can be promoted.”

“This event is to glorify God, and seek His choice,” said debate organizer Janet Folger of Faith2Action. “God doesn’t need any front-runners. … We can turn a ‘tier two’ candidate into a front-runner and a nominee.”

Though the largest TV networks skipped coverage of the debate, it was carried by the Sky Angel network, with live video streams on the Internet, and a DVD of the debate in the works. In addition to WND, media covering the event included the Associated Press, Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Good News.

Note: Read Janet Folger’s related column in WND today.

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