The scene of 10 white men in suits, lined up on stage Thursday night at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., had a certain visual sameness to it. But when the men opened their mouths, in the first debate featuring the 2008 Republican presidential candidates, some clear differences emerged – both stylistic and substantive.
Social issues provided the clearest contrasts, as top-tier candidates disagreed on abortion and stem-cell research. The field also divided itself over the issue of evolution, when the three candidates most identified for their social conservatism – former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado – raised their hands when asked who does not believe in evolution.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who remains a top-tier contender despite losing the first-quarter-of-2007 money race and slipping to second place in GOP polls, has struggled to appeal to the religious conservative base of the party. His follow-up response to the evolution question appeared to be an effort to reach out to those voters: "I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also."
But it was former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's discussion of abortion that provided one of the standout moments of the evening. Mr. Giuliani, the frontrunner for his party's nomination in Republican polls, has long been known as a social liberal, favoring abortion rights (as well as gay rights and gun control). But when asked if the repeal of the US Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide would be a good day for Americans, he replied this way: "It would be OK to repeal. Or it would be OK also if a strict constructionist judge viewed it as precedent, and I think a judge has to make that decision."
So what does Giuliani really think? When moderator Chris Matthews pressed for clarity, Giuliani stated that he thinks "the court has to make that decision, and then the country can deal with it." At heart, Giuliani put forth a federalist view on the right to abortion – leave it up to the states, which is what a repeal of the abortion precedent Roe v. Wade would do. In that vein, Giuliani defended his home state's longstanding policy of providing public funds for abortions for low-income women.
In short, Giuliani's position on abortion rights came across as a mixed bag – which could have left viewers confused or, alternatively, feeling that he mirrors the ambivalence of many Americans. But viewers who were looking for a clear rejection of legalized abortion – the view of most GOP base voters – did not find it with the New Yorker most famous for his post-9/11 response.
Giuliani's discussion of abortion was "not necessarily forceful, but it was different," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "That might hurt him, but then again, if you're interested enough to be watching the debate, you already know he's pro-choice. I don't think it will change the basic dynamics of the race."
In general, analysts did not see any knockout punches in the Simi Valley debate, as candidates avoided going after one another directly and instead sought the mantle of former President Ronald Reagan, whom they mentioned 19 times. Reagan's widow, Nancy, sat in the audience – a constant reminder of that elusive "Reaganism," the sunny optimism and conservative philosophy that gave him two terms in the White House and a mystique that only grows with time. The current crop of Republican candidates is often faulted for lacking a clear Reagan heir.
Still, the debate provided a level playing field for the all the men seeking to break out of the shadow of the top two contenders, Giuliani and Senator McCain. The candidate with the most to gain may have been former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who topped the field in first-quarter fundraising but remains unknown to a large chunk of the voting public.
Mr. Romney used a question on Catholic bishops as an opportunity to address religion and public life without mentioning his Mormon faith, a religion that makes many voters uncomfortable. In March, Gallup reported that 22 percent of Americans say they would not vote for a Mormon.
"This is a nation, after all, that wants a leader that's a person of faith, but we don't choose our leader based on which church they go to," he said.
Romney also chose to praise George W. Bush – a tack other candidates did not take – when asked how he would be different from the current president. He said: "I respect the president's character, his passion, his love for this country. I believe everything he does in this war against terror flows from a desire to protect the American people and to make our future secure."
In contrast, McCain's response to the same question was blunt and negative toward President Bush: "I would not have mismanaged the war," McCain asserted.
All but one candidate on stage – libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas – expressed support for the war, despite its unpopularity with the public, a reminder that the Republican Party faces an uphill battle in its attempt to win the presidency for the third straight election. McCain expressed confidence that the current strategy in Iraq can succeed and uttered one of the most memorable lines of the night, on the topic of at-large Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden: "We will bring him to justice, and I'll follow him to the gates of hell."
From many of the candidates, the tough talk also extended to Iran. "[Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is clearly irrational," said Giuliani, referring to the Iranian president. Most of the candidates made clear they would consider military action against Iran if it was proven to have nuclear weapons. On that score, the GOP field seemed intent on maintaining the party's image for being tough on defense.