THE SYMBOLISM for Thursday evening's Republican presidential debate was decidedly strained: A stream of uncharismatic faces making the pilgrimage to GOP holy land, hoping to find salvation for a party diminished by seven years of President Bush.
The 10 hopefuls at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library strove (again and again) to invoke the Gipper's sainted memory, but the contrast between the venerated past and perplexing present was on clear display. How did regulation-happy Arizona Sen. John McCain become the heir to Reagan's small-government legacy? In what parallel universe could a former mayor of New York be leading a Republican presidential contest?
And yet the first Republican debate of the 2008 campaign was, in its own way, encouraging -- for the Republicans, for California and for the nation. The breadth of small-fries in the field makes it hard to define a coherent Republican message, but that's a sign of intellectual ferment in the troubled GOP. The silver lining for a party on the verge of the wilderness is the need to go "off message" and entertain a variety of ideas.
The initial Republican field is capacious enough to contain a strongly religious "double-life" opponent of both abortion and the death penalty (Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback), a libertarian gadfly (Texas Rep. Ron Paul), a successful former governor and bureaucratic reformer (erstwhile Bush Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson) and -- in Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo -- the nation's most prominent and radical immigration restrictionist who also happens to be a tax-hating, medical-marijuana-supporting heir to Reagan's Western maverick legacy.