SIMI VALLEY, California (Reuters) - Republican White House contenders offered strong support for the military effort in Iraq but voiced qualms about the Bush administration's management of the war during a quiet first debate on Thursday.
The Republican debate at the California presidential library of conservative Republican hero Ronald Reagan produced few confrontations or memorable moments but exposed some differences among the 10 candidates on social issues like abortion.
Most of the candidates called for victory in Iraq, one week after Democratic presidential candidates in their first debate endorsed the war's quick end.
"We must win in Iraq. If we withdraw, there will be chaos, there will be genocide, and they will follow us home," said Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has led the charge in support of the war and backs President George W. Bush's plan to increase troop levels in Iraq.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the leader of the Republican pack in national polls, said: "We should never retreat in the face of terrorism. Terrible mistake."
But some candidates raised doubts about the management of the war by Bush and his administration. McCain said the war was "badly managed for four years."
"Clearly there was a real error in judgment, and that primarily had to do with listening to a lot of folks who were civilians in suits and silk ties and not listening enough to the generals," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
The debate in California occurred in a dour political climate for Republicans six months after the party was tossed from power in Congress in November's elections.
Polls show broad public dissatisfaction with Bush, the Iraq war and Republicans in general 18 months before the November 2008 election for the presidency, forcing the candidates to walk a fine line in deciding whether to embrace Bush or his policies.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose strong fund-raising and establishment support have elevated him into the race's top tier even though he lingers in single digits in national polls, said candidates must ignore the polls when it comes to the war.
"I want to get our troops home as soon as I possibly can. But, at the same time, I recognize we don't want to bring them out in such a precipitous way that we cause a circumstance that would require us to come back," Romney said.
Conservatives have grumbled about the Republican presidential field, criticizing Giuliani for his stances in support of gay rights and abortion rights and Romney for changing his stance on those issues.
Romney defended his switch on abortion rights as an honest change of opinion. "I said I was wrong and changed my mind and said I'm pro-life. And I'm proud of that, and I won't apologize to anybody for becoming pro-life," he said.
Most of the candidates said they backed repealing the Supreme Court decision making abortion legal, although Giuliani was ambivalent.
"It would be OK to repeal it. It would be also if a strict constructionist viewed it as precedent," Giuliani said, adding abortion should be an issue left to the states.
"You have to respect a woman's right to make that decision," he said.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson said it should be up to the states to decide, while former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore said he supported the right to abortion in the first eight to 12 weeks of pregnancy but had taken other steps to limit abortion when he was governor.
Giuliani and McCain agreed they would be willing to use military force to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, although McCain said there were plenty of other options before reaching that point.
The debate's location at the Reagan library generated an explosion of tributes to the former president and conservative icon.
Former first lady Nancy Reagan, along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, watched from the front row. But Reagan's presence did not convince many of the candidates to agree with her support for federal funding for stem cell research.
Also participating were Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Ron Paul of Texas, and Duncan Hunter of California.