Watch CBSN Live

GOP Hopefuls Evoke Reagan At Debate

News Analysis By Senior Political Editor Vaughn Ververs
A former president and the current chief executive shared a spotlight in last night's Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, but 10 men seeking the title spent little time in either of their shadows. In the face of a turbulent landscape for their party, these GOP aspirants sought to take on some of their political godfather's political magic while trying to shake off their current leader's anemic approval ratings.

As expected, Iraq and national security issues were front-and-center and, with the exception of the libertarian-minded Rep. Ron Paul, there was no cutting-and-running among this group — at least not overtly. Still, there was plenty of unease over the administration's handling of the unpopular war. "Terribly mismanaged," said Sen. John McCain.

But these are Republicans, and this group of candidates was not about to relinquish the party's traditional stranglehold on national security issues. While the war has taken a toll on President Bush and the GOP, this group of candidates stayed true to the "peace through strength" mantra Reagan once engraved on the party's coat of arms. Tough talk on Iran and the overall war on terrorism did more than make up for current concerns, leaving no doubt that the field remain committed to an overall war on what was referred to more than a few times as "Islamic Jihadism."

Following last week's Democratic debate, the 10 middle-aged-plus white men taking the stage were striking in the group's very makeup. History may be on the side of the demographic — America, after all, has never had a president who doesn't fit the category of "white man" — but this lineup lacked the pizzazz of their opposition, which features at least perceived electable diversity.

As their counterparts did last week, Republicans tonight were speaking more to their own party's base than to the nation as a whole. And the pressure was on, especially for the three perceived frontrunners, to demonstrate a kinship with their core voters. Whether any did so in a way that will satisfy GOP primary voters is unknown, but it's fair to say each of the three had some dicey moments in that regard.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani turned in an almost casual performance, one backed up with a competent command of facts but betrayed with some less-than-convincing arguments about his convictions. Giuliani was quick to say he was personally opposed to abortion, but his answers about government funding were confusing. While he said that the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits most federal funding for abortions, should remain law, Giuliani readily admitted he supported New York state funding as mayor.

McCain, who came out energetic to the extreme at the beginning of the debate, turned in a solid performance overall, hitting most key issues. In a nod to the most important person in the room — Nancy Reagan — McCain said he supports stem cell research when it comes to embryos already destined to destruction or perpetual animation. It's a cause dear to the heart of the former First Lady but at odds with conservatives within the party.

On the same issue, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney probably went over the heads of most viewers. Asked about the use of embryonic stem cells for research to cure diseases, Romney said he wouldn't use federal funds for that but touted a procedure very few have likely ever heard of.

"Altered nuclear transfer creates embryo-like cells that can be used for stem cell research. In my view, that's the most promising source," said Romney.

And many conservative may have been unconvinced by his explanation about his public switch on abortion, which he described as having come about as a result of a debate over cloning.

As with the Democratic debate last week, almost all of the lesser-known candidates proved up to the task but none was able to break out of the pack. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee sounded eloquent when discussing the issue of life.

"When hikers on Mt. Hood get lost, we move heaven and Earth to go find them. When coal miners in West Virginia are trapped in a mine, we go after them because we celebrate life. This life issue is not insignificant."

Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a fierce abortion opponent, allowed that his party could support a nominee who differs on the issue, saying, "I believe in the Ronald Reagan principle, that somebody that's with you 80 percent of the time is not your enemy, that's your friend and that's your ally."

It was that kind of evening for the most part. Even candidates who were thought to have taken indirect shots at their colleagues suddenly clammed up, claiming they had been speaking in generalities. This was an opening sparring session, featuring a few light jabs but no hard hooks. And the natural result is little movement among this current field of announced candidates. But anyone interested enough in tuning in got some exposure of some would-be-presidents they may not have even been aware existed. In that regard, it was the underdogs who won.