SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (AP) - Ten Republicans who often evoke Ronald Reagan hope the Gipper's magic rubs off as they face each other at the late president's library in the first GOP debate of the 2008 race.
The setting and the state were fitting.
Republican top-tier contenders Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney - as well as some of their underdog rivals - have embraced the conservative icon's legacy and called for their party to return to the limited-government that Reagan espoused in the 1980s, effectively distancing themselves from Bush.
Delegate-rich California also has become an important stop in the GOP campaign now that the state has moved up its primary to Feb. 5, far earlier than in elections past.
Eight months before the first GOP primary votes are cast, top issues such as the Iraq war, immigration, taxes, abortion, gay marriage and terrorism were certain topics during the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library north of Los Angeles.
The focus was on the strongest contenders - Giuliani, the former New York City mayor; McCain, a four-term Arizona senator, and Mitt Romney, the ex-governor of Massachusetts.
Seven lesser-known rivals were joining them on stage: Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas; former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, Jim Gilmore of Virginia, and Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Duncan Hunter of California and Ron Paul of Texas.
MSNBC and The Politico co-sponsored the debate, moderated by MSNBC's Chris Matthews. The former president's widow, Nancy Reagan, was to attend.
Missing were three Republicans still weighing whether to run - Fred Thompson, the actor and former Tennessee senator; Newt Gingrich, the ex-House speaker from Georgia, and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. They also weren't slated to participate in two more debates - in South Carolina and New Hampshire - in the next month.