Republican Presidential Candidates Debate in Simi Valley

Republican presidential candidates debated at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley on Wednesday night. California voters get their say next Tuesday in one of the most hotly-contested presidential primaries in decades. KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports that last night's exchange frustrated some people who'd hoped to finally make up their minds in a fast-changing race.

Frank Stoltze: The Reagan Library is situated high on a hill above Simi Valley, far from the cacophony of urban life. It's a good place to conduct a civil discussion about the nation's future.

[John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Anderson Cooper speaking]

Twenty-year-old Barrett Cone was in the audience. He walked away shaking his head.

Barrett Cone: When McCain and Romney were just bickering back and forth, and Anderson Cooper is trying to get in and break that up, and you've got three people yelling at once, pretty disappointing. It's pointless, really.

Stoltze: Cone is a member of the Pepperdine University Campus Republicans. He arrived at the debate undecided, and left the same way.

Cone: You didn't walk out feeling good about anybody, I feel like.

Stoltze: Cone also expressed frustration that the CNN moderator didn't extend more time to candidates Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul. Many of the state's Republican elite attended the debate, including Governor Schwarzenegger. The governor scheduled a news conference in Los Angeles today with John McCain. Schwarzenegger indicated he'd back the Arizona Senator, now that New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has dropped out of the race.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: The reason why I always said I would stay out of endorsing anybody is because both of those guys have been very close friends of mine, and have helped me with my campaigns in the past, and so that has now changed.

Man: ... because ere again, he's a household name and an American hero, who...

Stoltze: In the spin room following the debate, McCain surrogates touted Schwarzenegger's endorsement as a major boost. Jon Fleischman wasn't so sure. The Vice Chairman of the California Republican Party noted that the governor is at odds with many conservatives.

Jon Fleischman: It's not clear how popular he is. I know that, for example, he endorsed Proposition 93, recorded a commercial for them. They aren't using that commercial. He endorsed the Indian gaming compacts, they stopped running the commercials with the governor 'cause they weren't moving the numbers.

Stoltze: At the same time, Fleischman said, the governor's endorsement, along with Giuliani's, adds to McCain's growing momentum. But he added that the Arizonan faces challenges in California.

Fleischman: Romney clearly has the leg up. Romney has had resources on the ground in California for months now. John McCain was depleted from resources, hasn't really had a ground game, and so they are now very quickly putting together what they can.

Stoltze: One key question facing Romney: does it make sense for him to spend the millions of dollars necessary to reach California voters through TV ads. In the spin room, his general counsel Ben Ginsberg smiled.

Ben Ginsberg: That would be strategic information for our opponents that we're not going to give away.

Stoltze: A poll taken before McCain's Florida primary win, and before his Schwarzenegger and Giuliani endorsements, showed the Arizona Senator leading Romney 39 to 26% in California. The state is the biggest prize in the primaries next Tuesday, when more than 1,000 of the 1,200 delegates to the Republican National Convention are up for grabs.

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