Debra J. Saunders

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. -- Standing firmly on the land that Ronald Reagan loved, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., did not shrink from his own principles at the first GOP presidential candidates' debate held at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley Thursday night. More than any other national figure today -- no, I take that back because Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has put his career on the line, as well -- McCain has shown that he puts what is best for his country and U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan before his political career.

As McCain recently told "60 Minutes," "I'd rather lose a campaign than lose a war." McCain has staked his career on pushing for the Bush troop surge and victory in Iraq. As for Osama bin Laden, McCain was his old classic self when he vowed: "We will bring him to justice. I will follow him to the gates of hell."

At the Reagan Library, party biggies and big donors ringed the front rows.

Even with this audience, McCain bashed special interests. On spending, he pledged, "The first pork barrel earmark bill that crosses my desk as president of the United States, I'll veto it -- and I'm going to make the authors of it famous."

The buzz was that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won. Certainly, he gained the most. In the spin room, former Sen. Jim Talent, a Romney adviser, lauded the governor's sense of humor and "presidential" demeanor. Team Romney later bought rounds for the house at the hotel bar.

Mike Murphy, who has worked for Romney and McCain but isn't now, observed that people who have been wondering about the Romney appeal, now could say, "I see what it's about." I even found myself believing Romney's too-convenient rationale for switching his position on abortion from pro-abortion rights -- when running for office in liberal Massachusetts -- to antiabortion -- when eying a run in the GOP presidential primary. Romney said he saw how abortion had leached into other areas, such as cloning. And besides, Reagan switched to oppose abortion, too.

As for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, "He still doesn't have an abortion answer," Murphy noted. America's mayor said it would be OK to repeal Roe vs. Wade -- and it would be OK if a judge upheld Roe.

Actually, Giuliani did give a real answer later, when he said he does not like abortion, but "since it is an issue of conscience, I would respect a woman's right to make a different choice." Too bad it took so long.

Giuliani did shine when MSNBC moderator Chris Matthews asked the candidates how they would be different than George W. Bush. It was an invitation to kick the incumbent, who is, after all, down in the polls.

It would have been easy for Giuliani to remind voters that -- unlike Bush -- he knows how to make government work. As mayor, Giuliani turned around New York and made it a cleaner and safer place to live.

Instead, Giuliani reflected that, on Sept. 11, "we thought we were going to be attacked many, many times between then and now. We haven't been." Bush has to get some of the credit for that.

Of course, Giuliani pollster Ed Goeas told me his guy won, and praised the second-tier candidates, saying that half did quite well.

Many first-tier spinners had good things to say about Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. His best moment (for me) was when he said that no president should stand by as "a CEO takes a $100 million bonus to jettison" American jobs abroad. "And the worker not only loses his job, but he loses his pension. That's criminal. It's wrong. And if Republicans don't stop it, we don't deserve to win in 2008."

Rep. Duncan Hunter of San Diego impressed Dennis Lowe, 18, of Pasadena, Calif., as he considers who will win his first vote ever for president. Lowe also liked Giuliani, Romney and McCain. His father, also Dennis Lowe, thought Romney "came off the best," as he studied "who might be electable." Of the field, he figured, eight out of 10 make the cut.

Despite the Democrats' 2006 big gains, Republicans think they have a real shot at retaining the White House with this field.

The Democrats have gone too far with their Bush-lied mantra. If Bush lied, then Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards either were duped by that dumbo, Dubya, or they voted for the Iraq war resolution against their better judgment, because they thought they had to in order to win in 2008. If the latter, they've already reached the gates of hell.


Debra J. Saunders


 
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