GOP hopefuls sidestep Bush, seek Reagan tie

May 04, 2007|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican presidential contender who favors abortion rights, said in a televised debate last night that it would be "OK" if the Supreme Court overturned the landmark ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion.

Giuliani, the early front-runner in the polls, said he believes that abortion is a matter that should be left to a woman's conscience, but he also said that states could make their own decisions about whether to outlaw the procedure.

The ghost of Ronald Reagan hovered over the debate, held near his burial place in the Los Angeles suburbs at the presidential library that bears his name. In their first encounter of the 2008 campaign, 10 Republican candidates sought to tie themselves to Reagan's legacy and his enduring popularity with his party's conservative base.

By contrast, the man that they are competing to succeed - President Bush - was a ghost of a different sort. His name was scarcely mentioned by his party's contenders, despite their all-but-unanimous support for his Iraq war policy.

Near the close of the debate, the candidates were asked how they would be different from Bush.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who recently relaunched his candidacy with implicit criticism of Bush's leadership, said he "would not have mismanaged the war. It was mismanaged for four years."

Unlike Bush, McCain said, he would have "vetoed spending bill after spending bill ... in the tradition of President Reagan."

Giuliani, perhaps sensing an opening, followed up with praise for Bush while reminding listeners of his own greatest asset, his image as a leader in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I believe we had a president who made the right decision at the right time ... to put us on the offense against terrorism," Giuliani said, "and I think we as Republicans should remember that."

The debate was held under the wing of a Boeing 707 that Reagan often flew in as president and is now on display in the Air Force One pavilion at his library. Among those in the audience was his widow, Nancy Reagan.

The frail, 85-year-old former first lady entered on the arm of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who could be considered to be in the mold of her late husband mainly in their shared backgrounds as Hollywood actors. Schwarzenegger, a moderate, has alienated many conservatives and has broken with Bush administration policy on global warming and regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Those issues received relatively little attention in the debate, which focused on social concerns, including abortion and embryonic stem cell research - a pet cause of Mrs. Reagan's - as well as immigration and the war.

For more than a quarter- century, since Reagan's election as president in 1980, the Republican Party has remained resolutely anti-abortion. Presidential candidates' views on that issue have long been central to gaining the votes of activists who play a large role in the selection of the party's nominee.

"Would the day that Roe v. Wade is repealed be a good day for America?" asked moderator Chris Matthews of MSNBC, which aired the debate.

"Absolutely," replied former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who changed his stance on abortion two years ago. "I'm proud of that, and I won't apologize to anybody for becoming pro-life."

Giuliani, after saying that it would be "OK" if the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 abortion ruling were repealed, said it would also be all right if it were upheld. He said the courts should decide "and then the country can deal with it." Last month, Giuliani said the government should not interfere with a woman's right to an abortion and that, as president, he would not seek to overturn Roe.

Romney, who has used his fund-raising prowess to try to establish himself as a strong contender, was pressed to explain his recent statement that "it's not worth moving heaven and earth, spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person," referring to Osama bin Laden. "We'll move everything to get him," Romney replied, adding: "I don't want to buy into the Democratic pitch that this is all about one person, Osama bin Laden, because after we get him, there's going to be another and another."

McCain interjected that the United States will do "whatever is necessary" to track down the al-Qaida leader and capture him.

"We will bring him to justice," McCain said, "and I will follow him to the gates of hell."

The field of Republican contenders, all white males, is larger and less diverse than its Democratic counterpart. But the presidential contest in each party is wide open.

Seven of the Republicans are regarded as distinct long shots, though their records and views are more closely aligned with the party's conservative base. The trailing candidates barely register in national polling, with none drawing support from more than 2 percent of Republicans in the most recent USA Today/Gallup survey or the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

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