With the state's Austrian-born governor sitting 20 feet away in the audience, the bulk of the Republican candidates for president said Thursday they did not favor changing the Constitution to let Arnold Schwarzenegger or other foreign-born citizens run for president.
That put the broad GOP field at odds with Schwarzenegger, who has long said he and other immigrant citizens should have the opportunity to run for president.
Early on, moderator Chris Matthews polled the 10 Republicans on stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley, asking whether they would support the constitutional amendment needed to allow Schwarzenegger to run.
Two of the candidates said yes: former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
A definite maybe was registered by Arizona Sen. John McCain, who quipped that he was still angling for Schwarzenegger's support in the 2008 presidential campaign.
"Depends on whether he endorses me or not," McCain said. Then he said: "He and I have many similar attributes, so I have to seriously consider it."
The rest said no.
Schwarzenegger at times seemed the 11th person in the debate.
He escorted Nancy Reagan into the pavilion and sat next to her in the first row of the audience. Afterward, when the candidates went to greet the frail former first lady, Schwarzenegger stood next to her, protectively holding her arm.
Candidates and questioners alike invoked Schwarzenegger throughout the 90-minute session. At one point, John F. Harris, editor-in-chief of the Politico, asked U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter whether Republicans could learn from Schwarzenegger's formula for electoral success in California -- a blend of bipartisanship and conciliation.
Hunter, of El Cajon, conceded the governor's approach was "a way to win," but he added that candidates "need to win the right way." He went on to tout the value of a fence between Mexico and the U.S.
The question about the Constitution made for an awkward moment. None of the candidates seemed eager to offend California's governor, but there was no great appetite for amending the Constitution.
"Intimidating as he might be, I'm saying no," said Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado.
When the count reached 5-1, Matthews said: "We've got an overwhelming vote against you, governor, in your own house." The audience laughed.
Early in Schwarzenegger's first term, some of his supporters set out to lobby for amending the Constitution so that he might be able to run. But the governor has since accepted that it may not happen in his lifetime.
"He's not focused on what he's not able to do," said his press spokesman, Aaron McLear.