GOP 2008 Candidates Prepare to Face Off in First Debate

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

( - The first Republican 2008 presidential candidates' debate, scheduled for Thursday, will "separate the pretenders from the contenders," a political expert predicted Wednesday.

"[It's] like the opening week of 'Dancing with the Stars,'" said James Hedtke, chair of the political science department at Cabrini College.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson are all confirmed to attend the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. It will be aired on MSNBC.

Hedtke said the debate's foreign focus will likely be dominated by such issues as Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorism, North Korea, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and "the rebirth of socialism in Latin America." Domestic issues will probably include education, immigration, taxation, social spending and the environment.

Peter Brown, assistant director of the polling institute at Quinnipiac University, said the debate will be particularly important for the frontrunners.

"For someone like Mayor Giuliani who is ahead [in the polls], everybody will be watching to see how he holds up," Brown told Cybercast News Service. "He's obviously doing very well in the polls, so that he needs to protect his lead.

"Given that his views and values on a variety of social issues are not exactly in sync with traditional Republican policies, he will probably face questions on that," he said.

Brown said McCain needs a "bounce."

"This is a man who six months ago was the odds-on favorite for the Republican nomination and is now trailing Mayor Giuliani by a substantial amount," he said.

"The person who the debate might be most important for, however, is Romney. Romney's numbers aren't very good. He's consistently now running behind a candidate who isn't even in the race - Sen. [Fred] Thompson," Brown added.

"He needs to make an impression on the country, and a televised debate is not a bad way to do it," said Brown.

For Bob Kuttner, co-editor of the American Prospect, "what's going to be interesting is that you're going to have three frontrunners each running against their own record."

"You have three front runners who were in some respects more moderate than [President] Bush when they were respectively governor of Massachusetts and mayor of New York, and in the case of McCain, Mr. bipartisan Republican who was willing to criticize the administration on things like the treatment of prisoners and the conduct of war," Kuttner said during a conference call briefing Wednesday.

"On the one hand, you would think that they would try to distance themselves from Bush, but on the other hand, they seem to be in many respects emulating Bush and particularly trying to play to a narrowing base."

Kuttner said the actions of the Bush administration over the last six years put GOP presidential aspirants in a "quandary."

"Republican candidates are faced with this dilemma that two-thirds of the country has turned their backs on Bush, and the one-third that's still with him is the Republican base that will vote in their primaries," Robert Borosage, co-director of the liberal group Campaign for America's Future, said during the conference call.

But Hedtke told Cybercast News Service, "Since the Republican Party needs and is dependent on support from the religious and ideologically conservative right, a candidate who hopes to be a contender in the primaries must play to this constituency.

"This is a necessity for McCain and Romney," he said. "[Giuliani] most likely has already lost the right, but I cannot imagine what Democratic candidate they would support."

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