DES MOINES | Frontrunners Joni Ernst and Mark Jacobs took swings at Democrats and big government programs but generally avoided attacking each other in Thursday’s last face-to-face debate before Tuesday's primary election

Ernst and Jacobs joined Matt Whitaker, Sam Clovis and Scott Schaben in flashing their conservative credentials. Schaben at times broke from the pack to say he would be more pragmatic than the others in working in constructive ways to find solutions to federal problems mired in gridlock.

The forum, sponsored by KCCI-TV, was the last televised and joint appearance of the five candidates heading into the GOP primary. If no one receives at least 35 percent support in the primary, the nominee will be chosen by delegates to the party’s state convention on June 14.

The nominee will face Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley of Waterloo, who is running unopposed in his party’s primary election. The Iowa GOP is hoping to seize an opportunity to win the seat after U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a five-term Democrat, decided not to seek re-election.

Asked during the forum about the issue of same-sex marriage, Whitaker, Ernst and Clovis supported an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage as only between one man and one woman. Jacobs said the federal government should not be involved because it’s an issue for each state to decide. Unlike other rivals, Clovis said he was “in the trenches” fighting against judicial activism after the Iowa Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa.

Schaben, 39, an Ames sales manager, said marriage is a religious sacrament and there should be no role for government in that decision.

“I believe in getting the government completely out of the business of marriage. The Defense of Marriage Act has been struck down as unconstitutional. It’s time to move on,” he said.

Asked if he supported same-sex marriage, he said: “I think people can do whatever they want in their house. Yes, let people live. What would I have to say to them? Congratulations. Live your life.”

Whitaker, 44, a former U.S. attorney; Ernst, 43, an Iowa National Guard officer who serves in the Iowa Senate; and Clovis, 64, a Morningside College professor, said they would have followed the lead of Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and voted against the latest federal farm bill.

Jacobs, 52, former president and CEO of Reliant Energy, said he would have supported the farm bill and is “an unabashed supporter” of the renewable fuel standard. Schaben said he was glad a farm bill was enacted, and criticized politicians who “grandstand and take an all-or-nothing approach” to negotiations.

Whitaker said he wanted to “eliminate all things that interfere with markets” such as fuel standards and subsidies. Ernst agreed, but said she would continue to support the RFS.

All of the candidates favored finding market-based alternatives to the Affordable Care Act, and keeping promises made to seniors receiving Social Security and Medicare. They all favored looking for ways to help future generations have more freedom in self-directing their retirement and health benefits.

Clovis went further, however, telling the forum, "I think it’s about time that politicians, particularly those who are running for the U.S. Senate, stand up and say if we don’t take on entitlement reform then we don’t have any business running for public office.”