SIMI VALLEY, Calif.—Republicans seeking to lead their party and America into the post-Bush era sought a political middle ground on Iraq Thursday—criticizing the way the Bush administration has waged the war while lambasting Democrats for proposing that the United States pull its troops out.
"The war was terribly mismanaged," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, during a debate with rivals for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
McCain was one of 10 candidates who gathered for their first face-to-face debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
The candidates mostly ignored each other, spelling out their positions on issues such as abortion, immigration, taxes and war, and leveling their few attacks largely at Democrats.
Meeting under Reagan's shadow and the watchful eye of his widow, Nancy Reagan, most of the candidates used the 90-minute nationally televised debate to wrap themselves in Reagan's aura while subtly and gently distancing themselves from George W. Bush.
Reagan's name was mentioned by the candidates more than a dozen times. Bush's name was uttered just once, in passing.
"We now have to fix a lot of the mistakes that were made," said McCain of the war.
He argued that the country now has a strategy and a commanding general that can win the war, and he lambasted Democrats for urging a quick end to the war and for cheering after they passed language setting a timetable for withdrawal. "What were they cheering, surrender?" McCain said.
"There was a real error in judgment," said former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. He said that the administration listened too much to "civilians in suits and silk ties" and not enough to generals who urged far more troops at the onset of the war.
Huckabee added, however, that the United States shouldn't walk away from Iraq as many Democrats have proposed. "It's important that we finish the job and do it right."
Several candidates also vowed a muscular stand against Iran.
"The use of military force against Iran would be very dangerous. It would be very provocative," said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "The only thing worse would be Iran being a nuclear power."
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said the United States already has cause for military action against Iran. "Iran is moving equipment into Iraq that is being used to kill Americans," he said. "Iran has crossed the line, and the United States has absolute license at this point to take whatever actions are necessary."
On abortion, most of the candidates said enthusiastically that it would be a good day if the Supreme Court struck down the 1973 decision that legalized abortion.
But Giuliani, who supports abortion rights, said it would be "OK" to throw the ruling out or to uphold it.
Would the nomination of Giuliani, who's more liberal on social issues, split the party? Not if it were up to Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a passionate conservative. "Somebody who is with you 80 percent of the time is not your enemy," Brownback said, citing Reagan's philosophy.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, a Mormon, spoke forcefully when asked whether Roman Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be denied communion. "They can do whatever the heck they want," Romney said. "I can't imagine government telling a religion" what to do.
On another issue dear to social conservatives, Giuliani, McCain and Romney all said they thought it was a mistake for Congress to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman whose family fought over whether to disconnect her from life support.
Brownback called it the right decision.
On immigration, an issue that divides the party, McCain said to some laughter that he wouldn't be comfortable with Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, an ardent opponent of illegal immigration and another presidential candidate, as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
And with foreign-born California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger watching, most of the candidates said they wouldn't support amending the Constitution to allow him or any other naturalized citizen to be elected president. Huckabee drew laughs when he alone said he would support such an amendment—but only after he served his two terms as president.
Also participating in the debate were former Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Despite the large field of candidates, several potential candidates weren't there. They include former Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent William Douglas contributed to this report.)