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Last Updated: Friday, 4 May 2007, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
War and evolution as Republicans debate
A poster with the 10 declared Republican presidential hopefuls
So far, 10 Republicans have declared their intentions
The BBC's Justin Webb shares his thoughts after attending the first debate involving Republican contenders for next year's US presidential race.

A quarter of a century after the Reagan revolution transformed US politics and the Republican Party into the natural party of government, the 10 declared Republican candidates met at the memorial to the former president in Simi Valley, California.

It was a stunning backdrop.

There cannot be many more gorgeous debate venues in the US, high above rolling hills where they once made cowboy films, brushed by gentle winds and that famous Californian sunshine.

And in the room where the debate took place they had the jumbo jet that Ronald Reagan used to criss-cross the world in pursuit of communists and gloom-mongers.

Not a replica - the real thing!

'Blame Donald!'

And yet in spite of being able to muster such a stylish mise-en-scène, all is not well for the Republican party.

The stage is being prepared for the debate in Simi Valley
The real Reagan jet loomed large in the debate room

As we waited for the debate to begin, in the skies high above - at the kind of height a vulture might choose - two light aircraft buzzed the invited guests with huge posters reading "Republicans - Mission Accomplished!"

It was a teasing message referring to the now infamous poster they put on that aircraft carrier when President George W Bush declared what he then thought was the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

And it was Iraq that dominated the early moments of this debate.

The candidates said the war had been badly run.

And the man to blame? Donald Rumsfeld, of course! An easy target, since the former defence secretary is no longer around so it is not disloyal to put the boot in.

Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, led the way.

"A real error in judgement," as Mr Huckabee put it, had been "not listening to the generals with mud and blood on their boots" - so the war had been fought with too few troops.

The former governor was clear - he would have sacked Mr Rumsfeld much earlier.

Senator John McCain weighed in. He said that until recently the war had been "terribly mismanaged" by the Bush administration.

"Terribly mismanaged," he repeated for emphasis.

Nobody stood up for poor Donald.

Odd moments

But almost everyone stood up for the war itself and the need to stay in the fight - a stark contrast to the Democrats last week who were equally united around the proposition that the war needed to be ended quickly.

Sam Brownback
Jim Gilmore
Rudy Giuliani
Mike Huckabee
Duncan Hunter
John McCain
Mitt Romney
Ron Paul
Tom Tancredo
Tommy Thompson

This is now a clear division which the American people will notice and appreciate, a division that Americans will get the chance to judge when the time comes to choose between two presidential candidates in November 2008.

Two odd moments - the first on the subject of evolution.

Three of the candidates indicated that they did not believe in it.

None is a front-runner but even so there will be American scientists who will feel deeply depressed that serious politicians in 2007 can be disputing the entire thrust of modern knowledge about how the world was formed and how it, well, evolved.

The other odd moment underlined the wonderful cheeky ability of Rudy Giuliani to score dubious political points.

Talking of the Iranians and the right way to deal with them he said: "They looked in Ronald Reagan's eyes and in two minutes they released the hostages.''

That was a reference to the US hostages released on the day of Reagan's inauguration in 1981.

Strong point from the former New York Mayor but he did not mention other hostages taken on Reagan's watch - those seized in Lebanon and kept for years.

'Three-horse' race

Is he a touch too fast and loose for prime time?

Republican contenders John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney
The key contenders are (from L) McCain, Giuliani and Romney

He is certainly flushed into the open now on the subject of abortion.

At first, he seemed to toy with the idea of trying to avoid pinning himself firmly to the "right to choose" camp but eventually he did, saying clearly that abortion was a matter for the individual conscience of a woman.

He was the only top-tier candidate to say so.

Many party members will find that view unacceptable, even grotesque.

Can he still win?

The answer to that question will say much about the modern Republican Party and the power, or lack thereof, of the religious right.

As for the other two top candidates, Mitt Romney and Sen McCain, there is not much to be said.

Sen McCain put in a solid performance and certainly did nothing to harm his cause but nothing to advance it either.

Mr Romney had flashes of humour and a chance to explain his changes of mind on key social issues, but no "breakthrough" moment.

The truth is that this is a long hard slog.

Chatting afterwards to Sen McCain supporter and former Homeland Security boss Tom Ridge, he made it plain he was not a fan of the process we had gathered here to witness.

He told me it was "a monstrous marathon" and he would like to see the whole system of choosing a president reformed.

One day, perhaps.

This time round the marathon is under way and nothing can prevent it.

A billion dollars will be spent before it is over.

Select from the list below to view state level results.

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