The last time the Republican presidential candidates debated, not one of the major contenders managed to get his mouth around the word "Bush." Rudy Giuliani didn't use the president's name once. Neither did Mitt Romney, John McCain, Fred Thompson nor Mike Huckabee.
But then the president held a press conference in which he insisted that he was still "relevant," and by the time last night's debate began, the GOP front-runners mostly seemed to agree. They still didn't mention George W. Bush by name much: Aside from Ron Paul -- who mentioned Bush in much the same negative fashion that he did at the last debate -- only Fred Thompson actually invoked the president's name. Defending himself against charges of laziness, Thompson said that "President Bush" had called him for help in getting John Roberts confirmed as chief justice.
Two points of comparison: Fox's Brit Hume and Carl Cameron used the B-word at least five times last night, and the candidates referred to Bill and/or Hillary Clinton by name more than two dozen times.
But there was more love for the unpopular incumbent last night than a word search for "Bush" might convey. Romney defended Bush's road to the war in Iraq by saying, "This president went to Congress," and he praised Bush's failed plan for Social Security, saying that "the president" had advocated "private accounts," and "that works." Huckabee chimed in to say that "the president" had the "right idea" with private accounts but should have used the word "personalization" rather than "privatization."
As for Giuliani? He avoided the use of Bush's name again last night, but he wrapped his arms around the president nearly as tightly as he did during the 2004 campaign, when he said that he'd said after 9/11, "Thank God that George Bush is our president." Asked last night about his chances of beating Hillary Clinton, Giuliani said that if the polls had been correct in 2000, Al Gore would have been elected president.
Giuliani made it clear he preferred the alternative.
"I don't know, it might be a little colder -- I'm not sure," he said. "But I'm not sure we'd be any better off, right? We'd be in a lot worse shape, I think, with Al Gore. Thank you, Florida. Thank you. You saved us in 2000. That was a big one."