GOP Candidates Debate at Reagan Library

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In the first 2008 presidential debate held in California, 10 candidates for the Republican nomination met on Thursday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. But the real politicking began after the debate. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde takes us into the Spin Room.

[Sound of voices: "He's a man of action, he's a man of accomplishment, he's a real leader... his answers on health care, his answers on national security, everything across the line, you see somebody who's out there taking about the issues in a substantive way and was making a direct appeal to the Americans for his leadership style... he looked good, he sounded good, he was authoritative but comfortable, familiar..."]

Kitty Felde: Even before the candidates finished shaking hands and exiting the library's Air Force One pavilion, their surrogates were telling any member of the press who'd listen how terrific their candidate was in the debate.

Some contenders even pressed their kin into service – Mitt Romney's son Tagg and Duncan Hunter's younger brother Jim were happy to oblige.

Jim Hunter: This is a Hunter location. If you want a Hunter opinion, I'm happy to give it to you.

Felde: Little by little, the candidates started dribbling in. The bigger names headed straight to director's chairs in the TV news booths. The lesser-known candidates stood under small signs their staffers hoisted, and offered dust devils of spin on the debate.

Former Secretary of Health & Human Services Tommy Thompson conceded he'd hoped to talk more about health care, diplomacy, and Iraq.

Thompson: We really didn't get enough time to define our positions and to be able to articulate our plans for America. It was a tough venue.

Felde: The rapid-fire format seemed to amuse Kansas Senator Sam Brownback. He said he'd wanted the debate to focus more on human rights issues and ending cancer deaths in the next decade.

Brownback: It was a bit like jeopardy, wasn't it? It was like that up on stage, too. Because you're looking at this and you're saying, "Whoa, how do we get a cogent thought on a big topic like Iraq or life or taxes when you're in these Jeopardy lightening rounds?" Maybe it reflects our culture a little bit today, too; we kind of like things that move fast.

Felde: California Congressman Duncan Hunter figured he'd perfected his lightening round technique.

Hunter: What you do in these series of one-liners is you try to get in as much as you can on your message. I got my message across.

Felde: That message: a strong national defense, an enforceable border, and tax reform.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee also longed for more time to talk about tax reform. In the debate – and in the Republican field – Huckabee felt challenged by the sheer number of candidates.

Huckabee: It is difficult to stand out. I think sometimes if you stand out in a group of ten with quality people, it's only because you did something really outrageous that wrecked your career, not propelled it, so none of us were looking for that kind of stand out moment.

Felde: There will be other opportunities for these GOP candidates to distinguish themselves during future debates. The ones left standing next year will return to the Reagan Library on Wednesday, January 30th for the last GOP debate before the California presidential primary.