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SIMI VALLEY, Calif. - The Republican presidential debate was not so much a debate, of course, as a TV show.


Sort of American Idol, the early episodes.


Early in the Idol season, the shows are filled with contestants, some destined for the final rounds, some not.


It’s the same with the debates.


On Thursday night, the stage was festooned with candidates, 10 in all. And if the average American probably couldn’t identify half of them, there was no such problem recognizing the attendant entourage of political pundits and cable TV talkers who play the role of celebrity judges.


There was Chris Matthews, the hyperkinetic MSNBC host, chatting via a video hookup with former anchor Tom Brokaw.


And CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, waiting between takes inside the spin room at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.


And NBC’s David Gregory, reporting live from the parking lot outside.


After all, Hollywood, where they love a good story is only an hour away. And if campaigns are narratives, part of the script calls on candidates to offer themselves as something new. That poses a challenge for a Republican field seeking to succeed a Republican in the White House.


How do you propose a new direction without repudiating the current administration? President Bush’s poll numbers are low, but not among GOP primary numbers.


Arizona Sen. John McCain came closest, twice denouncing the administration’s handling of the war in Iraq.


“The war was terribly mismanaged,” he said, “and we now have to fix a lot of the mistakes that were made.”


Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the most severe critic of the war on the stage, went so far as to challenge the administration’s motives.


“Don’t get into it for political reasons or pretend the Iraqis were a national threat to us,” said the congressman.


Mostly, however, the field was wary of putting too much daylight between themselves and the president - a mistake, according to the chief strategist of Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.


“The candidate who finds a way to successfully break with the Bush administration will be the one who emerges as the nominee,” said Matthew Dowd, the one-time Bush aide who has since broken with the president.


Cleaving to the memory of Ronald Reagan was a safer bet. The former president’s name was invoked 16 times on Thursday night. Bush’s? Just once.


The 40th president is revered among the GOP faithful, and his library is perched atop the rugged, tawny-colored hills where he once made cowboy movies.


The library itself is party history, part hagiography. And when former first lady Nancy Reagan entered the hall on the arm of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the audience gave her a standing ovation.


Afterwards, in the frenzy of the spin room, representatives of each camp pointed up the bright spots in their candidate’s performance.


In this post-debate ritual, surrogates enter the room followed by an aide holding up a sign identifying them and are swarmed by reporters hoping to penetrate the sheen of good feelings and maybe even stir up a battle or two. But with a full 20 months left until the next president is chosen, everyone stayed remarkably friendly.


Longtime GOP leader Charlie Black, a McCain surrogate, repeated his candidate’s critique of the handling of the war.


“Yes, yes, he does believe the war was mismanaged the first four years and so you have to take that as criticism,” Black said.


Across the room, surrounded by a circle of media, Bay Buchanan pronounced Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo an unwavering voice against abortion (unlike former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, she suggested).


“You can’t spin the pro-life community,” she declared.


But it was Ed Goeas, a Giuliani adviser, who seemed most relieved by his candidate’s answer to one of the more esoteric questions of the evening: What’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shia Muslim.


Giuliani answered easily, saying Sunnis believe that the caliphate should be selected and the Shiites that it should be determined by the bloodline of Mohammed.


“We didn’t prepare for that question,” said Goeas, shaking his head.


It’s the kind of moment that determines whether you’re starring in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?

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