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GOP starts to chart its post-Bush course

Story Highlights

• First debate marks look ahead to life after Bush presidency
• Some yearn for return to heyday of Reagan "morning in America"
• Others say Reagan was unique personality for a unique era
• All appear agreed on need for return to fiscal discipline
By Candy Crowley
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Underlying all the questions about abortion, taxes and war during Thursday night's GOP debate was a simple question: What's next for the Republican Party? The answer is not so easy.

It wasn't just the first Republican debate of the '08 cycle. It was the first event of the post-Bush era -- the first time the 10 Republican candidates had a chance to show where the party goes from here.

For some, it's a strong yearning for the party's heyday.

"I think it's import to remember that what Ronald Reagan did was to give us a vision for this country, a 'morning in America,' a 'city on a hill,' " said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

"We forget to be coming up with new ideas, big ideas, like Ronald Reagan," echoed Tommy Thompson, former Wisconsin governor.

But the party of Ronald Reagan is minus one Ronald Reagan. And even some Reaganites say back to the future is more wishful thinking than game plan.

"Ronald Reagan was a unique man and a unique time," said Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who was Reagan's 1984 national campaign director. "I think Republicans would be foolish to try to compare anybody to him."

If not back to Reagan, then, where to next? The candidates had, at best, only a broad answer to the question.

What emerged during the debate was a party in flux, buffeted by a disastrous '06 election and the stewardship of a president with a 36 percent approval rating.

They struggle to woo back an electorate overwhelmingly convinced that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Asked how to get back to Reagan's "morning in America," former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani replied that the key is leading "from optimism."

"You will lead from hope, and we should never retreat in the face of terrorism," he said.

Nine of the 10 -- Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was the only holdout -- were at odds with voters over the premier issue of the day. They are supporting a war the public is weary of.

"Well, if you wanted to have a president that just followed the polls, all we need to do is plug in our TVs and have them run the country," said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

If there was a clear-cut post-Bush direction coming from the debate, it was in money matters. George W. Bush has presided over Great Society spending levels, and Republicans have lost the mantle of the party of fiscal responsibility. They are trying to retrieve it.

"The first pork-barrel earmark bill that crosses my desk as president of the United States, I'm going to veto it and I'm going to make the authors of it famous," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

In truth, it is difficult for a committee of 10 to set a single direction. Then, too, on the central Republican issues of abortion, stem-cell research, immigration and taxes, there are differences among the 10 -- differences that will be settled in the primary season.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said the Republican Party needs to return to Reagan-era ideals.



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