WOODLAND PARK - Candidates vying for U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn's seat pledged their allegiance Thursday night to President Donald Trump, recommended closing the U.S. Department of Education and called for the incumbent to be voted out of office.
Lamborn didn't defend his position during the first and only debate for Republican and unaffiliated voters before the June 26 GOP primary, because he didn't attend.
But his challengers did: state Sen. Owen Hill, El Paso County commissioner Darryl Glenn, former Green Mountain Falls Mayor Tyler Stevens and former Texas judge Bill Rhea.
All but Rhea said they stand by Trump and his actions since he was elected in 2016.
Glenn called the president a "wrecking ball" for whom he proudly voted and stands behind. Stevens echoed his appreciation for the president's disruptive nature.
But Rhea called for Republicans and Democrats to work together, something that has not been the practice under Republican control of Congress and the White House.
"Our president adds fuel to the fire," Rhea said. "He's divisive, and I do not support divisiveness in anybody, in any manner."
Asked how they would improve the nation's schools, Hill suggested removing Washington from the conversation entirely and letting local governments determine the best approach for their communities. He praised charter schools and public schools alike and said year-round schooling and trade programs might work well for certain students.
Stevens called to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education to raise money for states' schools.
"What would happen if we pushed that back down to the local level and spent that more locally?" he asked.
One college student asked how the candidates might reduce the exploding cost of higher education, and Glenn encouraged him not to rack up debt to continue his education. Many students likely have to work multiple jobs to make their way through college, he said.
Stevens reiterated Hill's free-market approach, while Rhea half-jokingly questioned whether it would be worthwhile to ask Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders, who sought free higher education for all in his 2016 presidential bid.
The candidates also were asked how to curb the epidemic of school shootings, but Rhea noted that the deadly events aren't limited to schools.
Acknowledging that many become defensive at the notion of tighter gun control, Rhea said the Second Amendment isn't under attack, though more regulation must be imposed, likely by each state.
"We're going to have limits," Rhea said. "The question is who sets them and what are they?"
Glenn and Hill, however, highlighted the need to boost safety at schools.
"We're not going to mandate that people carry weapons if they don't want to," Glenn said. "But if the parents in a school district want to arm their teachers, then let them do that."
Hill said each building will have different needs, whether metal detectors, more secure entrances and exits or armed guards.
Throughout the conversation, though, Hill and Glenn took jabs at the absent Lamborn.
The U.S. House calendar lists this as a "district work week," and lawmakers don't return to Washington until Tuesday. In addition, Lamborn's official schedule lists no events this week.
Erik Stone, chairman of the Teller County Republicans, said Lamborn hosted a fundraiser in Colorado Springs earlier in the week.
"So I know he's around," Stone said.
Stone said the congressman's absence detracted from the debate because voters want to hear from all the candidates.
Hill alluded to Lamborn's open schedule and absence at the debate, calling to throw "bums" out of Congress who have nothing better to do.
The candidates' first round of questions were posed by Izabelle Sand and Isaac Heidekrueger, incoming seniors at Woodland Park High School and members of the forensics team. Both said they were proud to work on the debate and to ask questions that affect them and their classmates.
"Walking out of my house earlier, I was like, 'Is that really something I'm qualified for?'" Heidekrueger said with a smile before the debate. "I guess we'll find out."
The debate was held in Woodland Park High School's auditorium and hosted by the school's speech and debate team.