DES MOINES, Iowa – The Republican presidential candidates walked a delicate line in their latest campaign debate, seeking some distance from President Bush and an unpopular war in Iraq while offering assurances of change in a new Republican administration.
"I can tell you I'm not a carbon copy of George Bush," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said Sunday, even as he called for a "surge of support" for troops fighting in Iraq.
The Republican rivals, meeting at Drake University for an ABC News-sponsored debate, generally disagreed with Bush's fundamental foreign policy goal of exporting democracy around the world and quibbled with the handling of the war even while backing it.
"All of us feel frustration, sometimes anger and sorrow," Arizona Sen. John McCain said of the war. "It was badly mismanaged."
They even found room for delicate criticism of the enormously powerful role that Vice President Dick Cheney has carved out for himself in the Bush White House.
"I would be very careful that everybody understood that there's only one president," said McCain.
"I think the president has over-relied" on Cheney, said Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback.
Some strategists argued that the movement is a natural reaction to the need to establish among voters an independent presence, while not riling the party's sharply conservative political base.
"There is a combination of amnesia and denial and dodging beginning to take place as the war becomes more and more politically unpopular," said Ed Rogers, a Republican strategist who is not aligned. "That has to be balanced with the Republican faithful being loyal to the president and respectful of authority. It's delicate."
The movement is likely to continue, while largely remaining respectful and polite, others argued.
"I think there is no advantage to a Republican candidate to personally attack George W. Bush," said GOP strategist Tucker Eskew, a former high-ranking Bush aide. "There is a natural political advantage to someone trying to succeed this president to say how you would do some things differently."
Marc Lampkin, who worked for Bush's 2000 campaign, said the gradual shifting is understood.
"They need to create some differences between themselves and the administration," said Lampkin. "We're at a critical point in making sure the American people are seeing differences."
"They wanted air between themselves and Washington," said GOP strategist Frank Luntz. "Washington is a four-letter word in Republican primary politics.
At the same time, the rivals made it very clear there would be no fundamental shift in policy in Iraq should they win the White House.
"The reality is you do not achieve peace through weakness and appeasement," said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
One of the sharpest exchanges of the debate came over abortion and Brownback's attack on Romney for not being strong enough in his opposition to it.
"It's truthful," Brownback said of an automated phone call his campaign made to highlight his rival's one-time support for pro-choice policies. "I am pro-life. I think this is a core issue for our party."
Romney called it "desperate, maybe negative," adding moments later, "I get tired of people that are holier than thou because they've been pro-life longer than I have."
The sharp exchange with Brownback led some to wonder if the well-financed Romney had allowed a lesser candidate to get under his skin.
"I'm a little bit surprised that Romney would let himself get into sort of an angry exchange with Brownback," said Rogers. "If you have to find a mistake in the debate, that was it."
The brightest moments of the debate may have taken place when the candidates turned their fire toward their Democratic counterparts. Potentially the most memorable line came when Romney attacked Democrat Barack Obama for first suggesting he would talk to hostile foreign leaders and then raising the potential of going into Pakistan to root out terrorists.
"He's gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week," said Romney.
That assault cheered some strategists who said it could mark the beginning of a phase where GOP candidates go on the offensive.
"They took a specific question back to Democrats," said Winston.
"As a party, in many ways, we have been back on our heels," said Eskew. "The way you get off your heels is to get back on your toes and go."
The debate likely did little to reshape a field where Giuliani, Romney and McCain are considered the top tier.
"None of the second tier did anything to move themselves," said GOP strategist David Winston, who is not aligned. "Romney and Giuliani did what they had to do."
The high-profile Iowa straw poll next week is likely to have more impact on winnowing the field.