MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- Poor Ronald Reagan. The 40th president was all but exhumed on Fox News during the first 30 minutes of Thursday night's Republican presidential debate, as each contender in the party's field tried to grab the Reagan legacy for his own political purposes.
It wasn't a surprising tactic. Like much of today's Republican Party, the South Carolina GOP primary is now basically seen as a Reagan creation. In 1980, the Gipper won the primary here on his way to capturing the nomination for president -- and every nominee since, from George H.W. Bush to his son, has gone on to do the same thing.
But Reagan, apparently, is in the eye of the beholder. The problem for South Carolina voters watching Thursday is that depending on which candidate you asked, Reagan's main accomplishment was anything from cutting spending (John McCain) to thinking positive (Mitt Romney) to making Jimmy Carter look like a wimp (Rudy Giuliani). Giuliani was the first to try the Reagan mask on. Then McCain, trying to make himself into the race's front-runner, claimed he helped get the Gipper elected. "I'm proud to have been a member of the Reagan revolution, a foot soldier," McCain said. Huckabee did his part back then, too: "I was a part of it in 1979 and a lot of the evangelicals ... became a part of helping Ronald Reagan to be elected." Romney answered a question about abortion by changing the topic to ... you know who.
Only Fred Thompson went so far as to demand time to lay his own claim to Reaganism. Except once he had his chance, he suddenly started talking about Huckabee instead -- the nastiest moment of the debate by far:
On the one hand, you have the Reagan revolution. You have the Reagan coalition of limited government and strong national security. On the other hand, you have the direction that Governor Huckabee would take us in. He would be a Christian leader, but he would also bring about liberal economic policies, liberal foreign policies. He believes we have an arrogant foreign policy and the tradition of blame America first. He believes that Guantánamo should be closed down and those enemy combatants brought here to the United States to find their way into the court system eventually. He believes in taxpayer-funded programs for illegals, as he did in Arkansas. He has the endorsement of the National Education Association, and the NEA said it was because of his opposition to vouchers. He said he would sign a bill that would ban smoking nationwide. So much for federalism. So much for states' rights. So much for individual rights. That's not the model of the Reagan coalition, that's the model of the Democratic Party.
So much for the 11th Commandment! That was just the beginning of the night for Thompson, who was so vibrant, so energetic, so ... awake that it almost made you think he was running for president. He had one of the night's best laugh lines, talking about the Iranian speedboats that threatened U.S. warships over the weekend: "One more step and they would have been introduced to those virgins that they're looking forward to seeing." (But it didn't seem to take much to get the crowd rowdy, which may have had something to do with the heavy pre-debate traffic in the adjacent bar by those in attendance.) He went after Huckabee every chance he got, a clear indication that the two men are competing for a similar pool of conservative voters in South Carolina. Advisors to every other campaign were surprised to see Thompson get into it so much, but his effort mostly just underscored how little he has been a player up to now. It also cheered McCain's strategists, who are quite happy to have someone else peel votes away from Huckabee.
The other sign of serious political tension came early on, as Romney lashed out at McCain for telling Michigan voters that some of the state's lost jobs are staying lost. Ever the optimist (see Reagan, above), Romney answered the night's first question by saying the U.S. was not heading into a recession and that he would "fight for every single job, Michigan, South Carolina, every state in this country." His aides sent a flurry of e-mail calling McCain a pessimist on Michigan's economy, and afterward, Romney told reporters the auto industry could surely turn itself around. Considering the state has the nation's highest unemployment rate (7.4 percent in November), McCain's "straight talk" might strike most Michiganders as more realistic. "One of the reasons why I won in New Hampshire is because I went there and told them the truth. And sometimes you have to tell people things they don't want to hear, along with things that they do want to hear," he said. "There are some jobs that aren't coming back to Michigan."
On most issues, though, things again came down to Every Other Republican vs. the Ron Paul Revolution. Everyone else agreed that it didn't make sense to second-guess the commanders involved in the Strait of Hormuz confrontation with Iran, who decided not to blow the Iranian speedboats up; Paul, who apparently wasn't listening, accused the others of pushing to start World War III. (That's not to say most GOP candidates seem to mind the idea of war with Iran, but they weren't looking to start it then.) Everyone else lauded the Iraq troop surge -- McCain and Giuliani even tangled over who supported it first -- and praised President Bush for finally paying attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Paul said the U.S. should cut off aid to both sides and get out of Iraq immediately. The Revolution mostly stayed away from domestic issues, though. For that matter, so did Fox News -- the only question about, say, healthcare, was one asking Romney whether he'd sign legislation that extended federal insurance to cover abortion.
The debate concluded with the mandatory segment on immigration. McCain actually got some applause for repeating his new mantra that the government has to prove it can secure the borders before dealing with the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the country already. That may illustrate that he's got more supporters coming to debates now than he used to, when the issue was hotter, rather than a broad acceptance of his plan. Romney again insisted it would be perfectly feasible to deport millions of people, though he didn't specify how. But he seemed downright pragmatic on the matter compared with Huckabee. "When people say, how will the government round them up? The government didn't round everybody up to get here," Huckabee said. "The government doesn't have to round everybody up to get back in line. That's nonsense. People got themselves here, they can get themselves to the back of the line." Presumably they won't have to pay $2,500 to hire a coyote to smuggle them there. With each day since Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist endorsed him, Huckabee makes less and less sense on immigration -- but that does play well in South Carolina.
Only McCain pointed out that the night's hero, Reagan, had helped create the illegal immigration problem by signing a 1986 amnesty and then failing to enforce the laws that were supposed to go along with it. But unlike last week's showdown, he didn't actually mention him by name when he did it. There are rules in South Carolina politics, though they're not the ones people play by in other states. As far as this night was concerned, the only one that seemed to matter was, "Win one for the Gipper."