GOP Contenders Embrace Reagan Legacy

The Associated Press
Friday, May 4, 2007; 2:19 PM

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. -- Ten Republican presidential candidates wanting to succeed President Bush embraced a more popular president, conservative icon Ronald Reagan, at every turn in their first debate of the 2008 race.

"Ronald Reagan was a president of strength," Mitt Romney intoned. "Ronald Reagan used to say, we spend money like a drunken sailor," said John McCain. And Rudy Giuliani praised "that Ronald Reagan optimism."

The world, however, is far different today than it was some 25 years ago when the nation's 40th president relaxed at his retreat in the rolling hills of southern California.

Iraq and terrorism now are top issues, support for Bush is at a low point and Republican hopefuls find themselves trying to prove to the party's base that they're conservative enough to be the GOP nominee _ on social matters as well as the economic and security issues Reagan championed.

The three leading candidates _ Giuliani, McCain and Romney _ and their seven lesser-known rivals attempted to do just that Thursday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. They debated for 90 minutes in the shadow of the late president's Air Force One suspended from above and before Reagan's widow, Nancy, who sat in the front row of the audience.

They stressed the importance of persisting in Iraq and defeating terrorists, called for lower taxes and a muscular defense, and supported spending restraint.

One by one, they invoked Reagan 19 times. In contrast, Bush's name was barely uttered; the president's job approval rating languishes in the 30s.

"They went out of the their way on multiple occasions, no matter the question, to associate themselves with Reagan," said Mitchell McKinney, a political communication professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "They tried their best to not be explicitly bashing or attacking Bush. Most of them tried, in some way, to take a pass on that."

Republican operatives agreed that the debate did nothing to shake up the crowded GOP field.

They said Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, McCain, a four-term Arizona senator, and Romney, the ex-Massachusetts governor, remained the strongest contenders, with the most money and the best approval ratings in the polls more than eight months before the first 2008 national convention delegates are selected.

"Clearly the top three looked quite presidential," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 campaign, added: "McCain showed a little energy. Romney showed he's very polished. And Giuliani started to clear up some of his issues with the base of the party."

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