Tucker Carlson, the top-rated Fox News host who has built a following pushing conspiracy theories and lighting into the culture wars, on Friday flirted with a presidential run in his speech to a large gathering of Christian conservative voters in Des Moines, Iowa.
Carlson used the event to blast transgender athletes, high energy prices (and wind turbines), make a glancing mention to Jan. 6 (an issue which hasn’t engaged voters on the right), before ultimately pivoting to an attack on corporate America. The speech ultimately focused on the kind of pocketbook issues that have been engaging many voters this year, themes very familiar to his large cable audience.
Carlson began with a classic tell used by many politician seeking Iowa votes, touting his many trips to the state over the years.
“I think I’ve done the full Grassley,” Carlson said, referring to long-serving Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who’s famous for visiting all the state’s 99 counties during his campaigns — an informal check of a candidate’s seriousness in running for president.
“He’s definitely flirting with it, 100 percent,” said Jon Schweppe, policy director for the social conservative group American Principles Project.
Carlson also delved into one foreign policy subject for which he has been heavily criticized: the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “I’m not a Putin defender, despite what you may have heard, because he’s not the president of my country. And what he does in Ukraine, while I think is historically significant — certainly significant to Ukrainians — is not more significant to me than the cost of gas,” he said to the many gathered for the Family Leader Summit in Des Moines.
Populist conservatives have long yearned for Carlson to launch a bid for the White House, even kicking up chatter through the end of Trump’s time in office. In 2020, New York donors toyed with the idea of supporting a bid by Carlson in 2024, and conservative pundits have long pushed for him to jump in.
But Carlson has consistently tried to tamp down the chatter. When asked recently by journalist Ben Smith, a co-founder of the new outlet Semafor, if he was running for president, Carlson laughed and said, “I’m not running.”
But in Iowa, he still had plenty of barbs and prognostications for the people who do appear to be running.
Regarding President Biden and former President Donald Trump, who Carlson did not mention directly, he said, “Nobody on either side has an ironclad claim to the nomination.” During an extended riff on conservatives valuing mainstream media opinions, he hit former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who was in Iowa last month, for tweeting words of condolence for George Floyd in 2020.
“I’ve always liked Nikki Haley, I would tell it to her face, ‘I like you, I don’t want you in charge of anything,’” Carlson said. “Because the second things get intense ... I want a leader who can still think clearly.”
Carlson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday evening after the speech.
His speech, albeit booked six months earlier, lands at a time when the Republican nomination for president seems like it could be a jump ball — Trump’s slipping poll numbers and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s steady climb in popularity have led many analysts to deem the GOP no longer under Trump’s control.
Schweppe, who keeps tabs on the wide-open field of 2024 contenders (none of the big name players have formally announced bids, although Trump again openly teased the idea this week) said Carlson has a powerful position on the right and will have to decide whether or not to jump in the race.
“He has the role that Rush Limbaugh had in the ’90s and he’s very aware of it,” Schweppe said. “Tucker is setting the terms of ’24 right now, he is the moderator. He’ll be hugely influential in terms of setting the topics. He has the bully pulpit.”