Showtime in Simi Valley

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007; 7:34 AM

John McCain must have had an extra bowl of Wheaties. I've watched him in dozens of situations -- he's usually discursive and conversational -- and his delivery has never been punchier. He was tough on Iraq, on Iran, said he would follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, and kept vowing to veto pork.

Rudy Giuliani mentioned Ronald Reagan early and often, his great sense of optimism, and mentioned at every conceivable opportunity (and even some far-fetched ones) that he had reduced crime in New York.

Mitt Romney invoked Reagan nearly as often, as a president of strength, and with his gleaming hair looked like a leader from Hollywood's old central casting. In fact, he almost looked too perfect.

The front-runners all started strong. Then they got to abortion.

When Chris Matthews barked out the question -- should Roe be repealed? -- everyone barked "yes" until Rudy said nonchalantly, "it'd be okay." But it would be equally okay, he said, if a strict constructionist judge viewed the ruling as precedent. Moments later, Giuliani said that "I hate abortion," but that public funding should be up to the states and, all right, he supported such funding in New York.

Matthews later went back at Giuliani a third time, and this time there was no stutter-step: It's a difficult issue of conscience, but Giuliani said he respects a woman's right to choose, knowing full well that most Republican primary voters disagree.

Romney dealt with a flip-flop question on abortion by . . . invoking Reagan. Romney changed his mind from being pro-choice, and so did Reagan, and so did Bush 41.

McCain, who has been consistently against abortion, did not get pressed on the issue and but was accused of flopping on the Bush tax cuts, which he now wants to extend. He turned the question into an attack on spending.

One thing was striking: Until a final question about Bush, there were as many mentions of Imus (negatively invoked by Sam Brownback) as of George W. (McCain said he was working with the president on immigration). Reagan was invoked with almost religious fervor in his Simi Valley library, but not the incumbent. That spoke volumes.

Matthews and his colleagues from spent quite a bit of time on social issues -- everyone on the stage opposed embryonic stem cell research, except McCain and Giuliani -- because that's where the GOP divisions are. Those issues barely came up at last week's Democratic debate.

And what was up with that question about whether Bill Clinton should be able to live in the White House again? In fact, Matthews spewed out so many questions as time went on that the whole affair was like speed-dating.

"No matter the candidates, no matter the party, Chris Matthews will always have the last word," Keith Olbermann said afterward.

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