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SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Everything was set up for drama at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Wednesday for what may be the final Republican presidential debate of the primary season.

The place, after all, is marked with an Air Force jet that evokes the era of “Top Gun,” and fittingly the candidates were placed on a stage framed by the Gipper’s Air Force One.

Confrontation was in script, and they delivered.

In a moment that will undoubtedly be replayed over the next news cycle, Romney challenged McCain’s contention — laid out during the Florida primary race over the past week — that he actually supported the idea of “timetables” in Iraq.  So worked up was Romney that he struggled to get the word “unequivocally” out of his mouth, part of his way of insisting that he would support no such thing.

“It is absolutely wrong,” Romney said, as McCain sat back in his chair with a kind of sly grin.

Romney hit him with everything, even the idea that these were “dirty tricks that Ronald Reagan would have found reprehensible.”

McCain continued to just grin, at one point rubbing something off his tie as if not even paying attention to his chief rival. He pointed to all of Romney’s attack ads on him, noting, a bit bitterly, “a lot of it is your own money. You can spend it all.”

Finally, it was Ron Paul who largely put an end to it when he said, “We have these silly arguments about who said what when.”

It was hard not to agree that this was engaging to watch. The audience — which industry figures like Grammer and Joel Surnow, the executive producer of “24” — was somewhat muted compared to past debates, but this forum was more exclusive than others.

In survey after survey, voters insist that they watch debates to get a sense of the issues. But who wouldn’t say that? The rhetorical play-by-plays gave way to personality a long time ago, and viewers don’t seem to mind. As the field of candidates whittles down by the day, ratings for each debate seem to just keep going up, a new kind of reality show in a prime time landscape of reruns and reality shows that don’t really mean anything.

CNN, co-sponsoring the debate with the Los Angeles Times and the Politico, had little trouble pumping up the moment.

This was McCain’s day, and he probably didn’t even have to say much on this evening to still come out ahead. Just hours earlier, with an entourage that included supporter Kelsey Grammer, Rudy Giuliani appeared with McCain in the media “spin room” to announce that he was endorsing him. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared before the press later, but was cagey about a McCain endorsement. It leaked out anyway.

So Romney, it seemed, had to do something to get back in the swing of the race.

Seated right next to McCain, he shifted his seat a bit away from him. In the first hour, he went after McCain with well-worn policy points: That the Arizona senator favored liberal immigration proposals (“the McCain-Kennedy bill”), that his campaign finance reforms backfired, that he didn’t vote for the Bush tax cuts, that he was endorsed by the “liberal” New York Times.

“I was endorsed by your two hometown newspapers that know you best,” McCain retorted.

Sure, the tiffs didn’t equal their media billing, and how could they? McCain is 71, and isn’t exactly an attack machine, and Romney rarely if ever gets steamed up enough to let a hair fall out of place. And by an large they were civil throughout the 90 minutes, and shook hands in the end. And when it came to brush offs, the only one who seemed to have gotten the cold shoulder  was moderator Anderson Cooper, who repeatedly tried to ask the candidates about the George W. Bush years — whether we are better off than we were 8 years ago. They would have none of it. By and large, McCain and Romney dodged.

Instead this was an exercise in proving who could really capture Reagan’s magic — and they both competed to set themselves up as the natural heir.

With Nancy Reagan in the audience, McCain said he was a “foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.” Romney noted repeatedly that he was in the “house that Reagan built.”

Paul and Mike Huckabee also sought the coattails of the Great Communicator, not to mention CNN itself. At one point, Cooper brandished the actual Reagan diary, a Bible of conservatism that nevertheless contained a passage of Reagan’s praise for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a supporter of abortion rights.

Suddenly, they were struck with the reality of Reagan nuance.

So would they have chosen O’Connor?

“I am not going to come to the Reagan library and say anything about Ronald Reagan’s decisions,” said Huckabee, otherwise sidelined for much of the forum. “I’m not that stupid.”

Yes, it would be dramatic if he actually disagreed with the Gipper, but it was just not in the script.