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10 Republicans meet Thursday in first GOP presidential debate, trying to avoid missteps

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Ten Republicans, one stage, 90 minutes — just enough time for Rudy Giuliani, John McCain or Mitt Romney to make a major gaffe as underdog rivals scramble for relevancy during the first GOP presidential debate Thursday.
    The three heavyweights were expected to boast of their own past accomplishments and outline their visions for the future, mainly playing it safe as they seek to start distinguishing themselves from one another eight months before the first GOP primary votes are cast.
    ‘‘This is batting practice,’’ said Rich Galen, a GOP strategist who offered the trio a bit of advice: ‘‘Don’t get hurt.’’
    Giuliani, McCain and Romney all kept their public campaign schedules relatively light over the past few days, opting to spend as much time as possible huddling with aides to rehearse their responses to expected questions on top issues such as Iraq, immigration, taxes, abortion, gay marriage and terrorism.
    Lesser-known candidates like Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Jim Gilmore of Virginia were simply looking for respect, hoping to be seen as serious contenders in the jam-packed field.
    Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Duncan Hunter of California were sure to use the gathering as a platform to plug their signature issues: immigration and national security, respectively. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas also was to be on stage for the debate, scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. EDT at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library north of Los Angeles.
    MSNBC and The Politico were co-sponsoring the debate, moderated by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. Library officials said the former president’s widow, Nancy Reagan, would attend.
    Missing will be 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 — over the next month.
    The Reagan library was a fitting setting. Most, if not all, of the Republican candidates have embraced Reagan’s legacy and called for their party to return to the small-government, low-tax, strong-military ideals he espoused. California also is fertile ground in the GOP primary fight now that the state has decided to hold its primary on Feb. 5, far earlier than in elections past.
    With 10 candidates answering a wide range of questions in such a limited amount of time, Republican operatives say Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, McCain, a four-term Arizona senator, and Romney, an ex-Massachusetts governor, probably won’t have much of a chance to make significant impressions that could help them break out of the leaders’ pack and shake up the race.
    ‘‘It’s going to be very short,’’ Romney told Jay Leno on Wednesday on ‘‘The Tonight Show.’’ ‘‘Get on, get off, keep your hair from getting messed up.’’
    ‘‘It’s mostly a matter of sticking to the talking points that you’ve been saying,’’ Galen said. ‘‘The good news for any of the top three is not to make any news.’’
    Nevertheless, the seven second- and third-tier GOP hopefuls could prove dangerous to the trio, providing numerous opportunities for missteps.
    Asked how a candidate gets ready to face nine opponents, McCain told reporters last week aboard his campaign bus in New Hampshire: ‘‘You just prepare your own answers. You probably know most of the questions.’’
    ‘‘I’m not sure how you manage 10 people. It’s awfully hard logistically,’’ added McCain, who lost the nomination to George W. Bush in 2000. ‘‘It’s not like it was with me and Bush.’’
    Other candidates are looking to earn a seat at the head table.
    ‘‘The key thing is just to be able to show there’s a capacity to stand with those others and there’s a misconception about what a front-runner looks like,’’ said Huckabee, who trails several rivals in fundraising, polls and organization. In an interview, the ex-governor said he also is focused on avoiding mistakes — ‘‘like falling off the podium or looking at my watch.’’
    As the 10 prepare to take the stage, questions abound:
    —Will Giuliani, the former mayor of ultraliberal New York who is known to ramble on the campaign trail, project a focused message and adequately answer for his moderate stances on social issues?
    —Will McCain, linked to the unpopular war in Iraq and fighting the perception that he’s tired, broaden his pitch and show energy?
    —Will Romney, fighting the label of flip-flopper and scoring low in the polls, come across as sincere in his beliefs and prove he deserves his top-tier spot?
    Perhaps the biggest unknowns are whether any of the front-runners make a fatal misstep and will any one of the underdogs emerge.
    ———
    On the Net:
    www.reaganlibrary.com

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