On Wednesday night, eight Republicans gathered at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California to debate each other for the right to take on President Obama next year.

Most eyes were on Gov. Rick Perry and former Gov. Mitt Romney, the two front-runners, to see how they would perform. But I was watching the debate for a different reason. There is a war going on inside the Republican Party over science, and I wanted to hear it play out on national television.

The conflict came to most people’s attention a few weeks ago after Gov. Jon Huntsman took a shot at Perry over his views on a couple of hot-button issues. Said Huntsman on Twitter, “To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

Republicans, of course, tend to discount climate science as quackery, mostly because of the people who believe in it so strongly (Al Gore) and the big government solutions offered by Democrats to combat it (cap and trade).

Afterward, many conservatives were disappointed to hear that Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey — a Republican rock star — had acknowledged a belief that the planet was warming and that humans played a role. He was immediately crossed off the list of many who had hoped he would run for president.

But for Huntsman specifically to say such a thing while running for the Republican nomination was brave, and probably foolish. And for Perry to play the ostrich with his head in the sand and expect to attract independents in the general election was just as foolish.

So to say that I was looking forward to seeing the issue discussed by Perry and Huntsman would be an understatement. Sadly, the results were disappointing.

Huntsman’s argument basically boiled down to the following: “Listen, when you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I’m saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science.”

He continued, “We’ve got to win voters.” So he thinks Republicans should accept the Democratic line on climate just to win. Not a compelling argument.

Perry on the other hand, said climate science was unproven and unsettled. “The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me, is just nonsense,” Perry said, also saying, “Galileo got outvoted for a spell.”

To me, both of these men are wildly off base. Huntsman parroted the Democratic Party line, and Perry exposed his gross ignorance on the subject. Why isn’t there a candidate, any candidate, in this race who is willing to actually give the right answer?

Here is what I’d like to hear Republicans start saying on climate change:

“Look, climate science has its problems, like any kind of science. We can’t know everything and yes people with agendas have played with numbers to make their case more compelling. We have been sold crazy theory as fact quite often.

“Yet the backbone of climate science is sound. It is pretty evident the planet is warming and that we probably have something to do with it. Even the majority of climate change ‘skeptics’ actually do believe that the planet is warming and human beings play a role, they simply disagree on the effects and the scope.

“Even so, there is nothing about believing that the science is sound that says that the way to tackle the problem is the proposed policies from the Democratic Party. Not only are they insanely expensive, they won’t do anything to fix the problem.

“The answer to correcting global warming is to innovate our way out by developing legitimate technologies that produce cleaner energy, and as is the case in all things, the market will be the mechanism for that change.

“So sure, climate science is mostly settled. But fixing that problem won’t be done by capping emissions or funding solar panels and wind farms, and don’t expect me to have any interest in destroying the American economy by chasing that fool’s gold.”

Yes, Virginia, it is possible to believe in science and not turn into Al Gore.

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for Sen. Susan Collins and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at matthew.o.gagnon@gmail.com and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...