If there was a winner of the first debate of Republican presidential candidates on Thursday night, it was Ronald Reagan.
His name, legacy, demeanor, optimism — anything about him, it seemed, were invoked repeatedly in what seemed to be a relentless pursuit among the field of hopefuls to capture his mantle.
There was the obvious comparison: Reagan’s steadfast anti-communism as a model for standing up to terrorism.
There also was abortion. “I changed my mind,” Mitt Romney, explaining his switch from pro-choice to pro-life. “I took the same course that Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush did.”
And there was Iran, with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani noting that a previous regime there “looked in Ronald Reagan’s eyes and in two minutes they released the hostages.”
The field of 10 candidates could not help but bring up the Gipper, not only because the forum was held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, but because many GOPers believe that the party has to veer back toward his legacy if it has any chance of capturing the White House in 2008.
Like the Democrats last week, there was little in the way of verbal sparring, and there were few zingers. At times, candidates seemed to be under some sort of SAT test, as when Giuliani was asked to define the differences between Sunnis and Shiites (He passed).
The debate was held under the 747 that carried Reagan through his presidency, with Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo even noting that it was the “closest I have been to Air Force One.”
But the question that lingered throughout was how they would deal with President Bush’s legacy.
He was rarely mentioned by name, and most criticism came in soft gloves, with the harshest words reserved for the Republican-led Congress and its prolifigate spending.
“We went to Washington to change Washington, and Washington changed us,” said former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.
The most biting comments came from McCain, who noted that the President could have vetoed pork barrel spending measures. Several times, with emphasis, McCain repeated that the war had been “terribly mismanaged.”
Yet, as he has been throughout the campaign, he was steadfast in sticking to the new strategy of adding more troops to the region.
“We must win in Iraq. If we withdraw, there will be chaos, there will be genocide and they will follow us home,” he said.
McCain’s fund-raising in the first quarter fell short of expectations and, in some polls, he has trailed even actor Fred Thompson, who is not even running yet. So of all the top tier candidates, the Arizona senator had perhaps the most to gain from the debate — and he took advantage of it. He sounded feisty, even angry at points, declaring in one instance of Osama bin Laden, “I will follow him to the gates of hell.”
It sounded like one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie lines — but the governor sat silent, in the audience next to former First Lady Nancy Reagan.
Tough rhetoric like McCain’s resounded throughout the 90 minutes, as candidates warned not only of Islamic extremism, but the the dangers of putting Democrats in office to fight the war on terror.
Those dire warnings also made it a bit more difficult for any candidates to come close to matching Reagan’s rhetorical sense of optimism. After all, it’s a tough thing to pull off when emphasizing the threat of global terror.
“We should never retreat in the face of terrorism,” Giuliani said. “Terrible mistake.”
Out of all the candidates, Giuliani and McCain have collected the most money from the entertainment industry so far, with many of their supporters saying that their support comes because of their character and leadership and not their stances on specific issues.
But to capture Republican primary votes, all the candidates have emphasized their “true conservative” credentials — and it has challenged Giuliani and McCain to explain what would be called maverick positions within the party.
Pressed to define his position, Giuliani, a pro-choice Republican, said of Roe vs. Wade, “It would be OK to repeal it. It would be OK also is a strict constructionist viewed it as precedent.”
There was, however, relatively little attention paid to other so-called “values” issues, like gay marriage and pop culture. When it came to the entertainment industry, only Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas turned his attention to the politics of the culture, pointing to the coarseness of Don Imus and record industry lyrics as examples of problems.
“Neither party has a monopoly on virtue or vice,” Giuliani said. “This is just a fallacy that we sometimes fall into.”
With the sheer number of candidates, so many it was hard to keep their names straight, moderator Chris Matthews had the uneviable task of keeping the contenders concise and direct. It didn’t always work. At one instance, he said to Thompson, “Actually, you can respond to just about anything at this point.”
(The other candidates were former Virigina Gov. Jim Gilmore, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California Rep. Ron Paul of Texas).
But Matthews did keep it all moving along briskly, and elicited even a few uncomfortable moments as when he challenged the candidates on two issues near and dear to two people staring right at them: Schwarzenegger and Reagan.
Of Schwarzenegger, he asked whether the Constitution should be changed to allow the Governor, whose endorsement is considered key, to run for President.
Pressed on their stances, seven said no, two said yes (Giuliani and Huckabee) and one said he would consider it (McCain). “Depends on if he endorses me or not,” McCain quipped.
And there was the question of funding stem cell research, advocated by Nancy Reagan.
Only McCain came right out and said, “We need to fund this.”
In this room, Reagan’s legacy was as clear as morning in America; in pursuit of it, there are many muddled moments.