Ten Republican presidential hopefuls face off in California Thursday for their first debate of the 2008 campaign trail, courting core conservatives in the shadow of party icon Ronald Reagan.
A week after Democratic counterparts opened their debate season, the Republican field will gather at the former president’s library outside Los Angeles, nine months before first votes are cast for the nomination.
Analysts say the debate provides an opportunity for lesser-known contenders to make inroads into the leads of early front-runners, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and closest rival Senator John McCain.
Both men score well in head-to-heads against Democratic heavyweights Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
That despite national polls that have 50 percent of voters aligning with the Democrats while 35 percent side with Republicans.
Giuliani, running a campaign rooted in his leadership during the September 11 attacks in 2001, will be in the crosshairs as he tries to shield his clear early lead in opinion polls.
An average of recent polls puts Giuliani at around 33 percent of likely Republican voters, well clear of McCain.
McCain, once viewed as the clear favorite of the Republican establishment, must use Thursday’s debate to shore up his bid after a slow start and a lackluster showing in the multi-million dollar fundraising stakes.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will relish the exposure before a national US television audience, while lesser candidates will hope to break out from the pack.
But analysts said a decisive development was unlikely so early in the race given the size of the field, stuffed with little known longshot candidates, and the absence of some likely key contenders.
"There may be a jab here or there, but I see it more as a first round, they’re not necessarily going to go for the knock-out blow," said David Corbin, of the University of New Hampshire.
Bruce Buchanan, of the Department of Government at the University of Texas, Austin, said the first head-to-head encounter of the Republican campaign was unlikely to doom anyone’s White House dreams.
"It is an opportunity to push their message, to look good compared to the others, nobody’s star will be dimmed."
Several potential strong Republican candidates, such as television star and former senator Fred Thompson and former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, are mulling campaigns but will not be at the debate.
There is also a feeling that conservatives, who revered Reagan and helped President George W. Bush win the presidency, are unhappy with their 2008 field.
Despite the early stage of the race, polls show potential voters are keeping a keen eye on the shape of both Democratic and Republican fields, so there is no room for gaffes that could be exploited down the road.
Early shots of Thursday’s encounter will likely be dominated by Iraq.
Republican candidates face a difficult choice. A recent poll by the Pew Center for People and the Press showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans want their congressional representatives to vote to bring US troops home.
But two-thirds of Republicans, according to the same survey, wanted their representative to vote against — meaning that it would be a brave candidate who would distance himself from the president at this stage.
"Given that this is so early in the process, they are going to sound like war hawks," said Buchanan.
McCain, who has tied his political fate to Bush’s plan to surge troops into Iraq, and warns the United States will pay a heavy price for any precipitous retreat from Iraq, has most to lose among Republican contenders over the war.
Many analysts are watching to see whether the Arizona senator, who was highly popular among independent voters during his unsuccessful bid for the 2000 nomination, can send a jolt of momentum through his 2008 campaign.
Romney, who stunned observers by piling up the most fundraising cash among Republicans in the first quarter of 2007, will hope to shake off claims he is a "flip flopper" — guilty of ditching liberal positions in a cynical attempt to lure conservative voters.
The debate also includes long-shot candidates: former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, former Bush administration cabinet member Tommy Thompson, and conservative Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo.
Congressman Duncan Hunter, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Texas congressman Ron Paul will also take part.
While Bush’s popularity is at record lows, analysts did not expect Republican candidates to lash out at the president; voters in Republican primaries are believed to be still largely loyal to him.
Alex Castellanos, a top adviser to Romney, told The New York Times Thursday "Mitt Romney is going to be talking about where we are going; he doesnt have to relitigate the past."
California’s Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will be in attendance, said he hopes to see the debate signal a shift to the political center.
"What’s important is to be in the center and to see that someone deals from the center and accomplish everything by reaching across the aisle — to work with Republicans and Democrats in order to bring people together," he told The Politico website.