IMAGE: Candidates at GOP presidential debate
Kevork Djansezian  /  AP
Presidential contenders Mitt Romney, Sam Brownback and Ron Paul line up Thursday on stage before the first Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 5/4/2007 4:38:09 AM ET 2007-05-04T08:38:09

Republican presidential candidates gave a qualified endorsement Thursday night to President Bush’s strategy in the war in Iraq, criticizing the administration for mismanaging the war but insisting that U.S. troops should not be withdrawn.

In the first Republican debate of the 2008 campaign, the 10 most prominent contenders walked a fine line on the war. On one hand, they were reluctant to wholeheartedly back Bush’s strategy, which polls show is unpopular with the public at large; on the other, they could not afford to abandon the president and antagonize conservative Republicans who vote in the party’s presidential primary.

The candidate in the most difficult position, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, stuck by his guns in being the president’s strongest backer, a position his advisers said showed his willingness to remain true to his principles regardless of popularity.

Asked how he would handle Iraq if elected, McCain allowed that the war had been “terribly mismanaged,” but he added: “We have a new general, [and] we have a new strategy. That strategy can succeed.”

By contrast, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee criticized Bush for firing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after the 2004 presidential election. He said he would have fired Rumsfeld before the election.

“Clearly, there was a real error in judgment,” Huckabee said, saying the administration did not listen closely enough to veteran military commanders who warned that the war would be long and difficult.

The sharpest disagreements of the night came on abortion. All but one candidate, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, called for repeal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion nationwide, putting Giuliani, the party’s front-runner in the early going, sharply at odds with its base.

The U.S. campaign to track down al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden did give the candidates a chance to take a clear-cut position. All who were asked said the mission was imperative, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who tried to clarify his previous statement that the war on terrorism “is more than about just one man.”

Romney repeated that “this is about more than Osama bin Laden,” but he said firmly, “He will have to pay, and he is going to die.”

McCain was equally blunt, promising, “We will bring him to justice, and I will follow him to the gates of hell.”

Giuliani looks to consolidate lead
The debate was held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., north of Los Angeles. The debate, co-sponsored by MSNBC and the political Web site politico.com, aired on MSNBC-TV and C-SPAN radio and was streamed live on MSNBC.com.

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Reagan’s legacy was acknowledged almost immediately, when Giuliani said he would “lead with optimism.”

“What we can borrow from Ronald Reagan, since we are in his library, is that great sense of optimism,” he said.

Giuliani was hoping to build momentum on recent polls that show him leading the field. A poll released Thursday by Quinnipiac University showed Giuliani leading McCain by 27 percent to 19 percent. Romney trailed with 8 percent.

Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, chairman of the Republican National Committee, acknowledged polls that indicate that many Republicans are unhappy with the candidates on offer, but he said, “I think tonight as they get better known, as they deal with the issues and people get to compare and contrast, I expect those numbers will increase.”

The other candidates on the stage Thursday night were Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Tommy Thompson, a former governor of Wisconsin and Bush’s first secretary of health and human services.

Romney aims to firm up his image
Romney had the opposite challenge from McCain: proving that he can stick to his principles.

In the past year, Romney has switched his stances on same-sex marriage and abortion rights, which he advocated during his single term as governor of liberal Massachusetts during the 1990s.

He explained Thursday night that his positions had evolved sincerely over time and that he now firmly opposed abortion rights, a change that set even further apart Giuliani’s support for a woman’s right to an abortion.

Romney, meanwhile, got a chance to address concerns among some voters over his Mormon faith. Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, suggested that Romney had revealed himself as not being particularly religious because he has said his faith would not determine his decisions on important issues.

Romney said the question was not what faith a president observed, but whether that faith informed his belief in “American values.”

“The great values we share are American values,” he added.

Romney drew support from Brownback, a leading figure in the conservative evangelical Christian movement, who said: “We’ve had 40 or 50 years of trying to run faith out of the public square. ... This isn’t something that divides us.”

Actor, ex-speaker loom large
Beyond the challenge of being heard above their declared rivals, the candidates are also laboring to emerge from the shadows cast by two men who were not there, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

Neither man has said whether he will run, but Thompson has been speaking widely before conservatives and Republican groups in recent weeks. Friday night, he is scheduled to speak to a gathering of Republicans in nearby Orange County, one of the most conservative counties in the nation.

Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., an adviser to Thompson, said Thompson would almost certainly announce “in early summer” that he was running.

Gingrich, meanwhile, has kept a lower profile, but he has said he will decide whether to run by September.

The Quinnipiac poll illustrated the depth of Republicans’ desire for different candidates. Even though they are not yet running, Thompson polled third, at 14 percent, while Gingrich was tied with Romney, at 8 percent.

Against that background, the lesser-known candidates worked to get a hearing for their signature issues.

For Hunter and Tancredo, that was a crackdown on illegal immigration. Time and again, Hunter reminded voters of his role in the building of a wall on the Mexican border in Southern California, while Tancredo repeatedly urged the adoption of “secure  borders.”

For Huckabee and Thompson, the main argument was their readiness to take office as governors with long records of accomplishment.

For Gilmore, the goal was to reinforce his main campaign appeal as the only “true conservative” in the race. He said that, unlike some of his rivals, he had “remained consistent” to his conservative ideals and had never “flipflopped from one year to the next.”

Brownback sought to challenge Gilmore for that mantle, returning to core issues important to conservative religious voters, especially his opposition to same-sex marriage and all abortion.

Paul, meanwhile, used the opportunity to give a second airing to the traditional Libertarian principles he espoused as a candidate in 1988 on the Libertarian ticket. Alone among the candidates, he opposed issuance of identity cards to immigrants and called for abolition of the Internal Revenue Service.

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