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GOP rivals seek distance from Bush

By Mike Glover
Associated Press Writer

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.

Political advantage

“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.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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