SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (FOX 11 / AP) - Standing in Ronald Reagan's presidential library, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul recalled meeting Reagan as a teenager and thinking of him as a hero because he challenged Republican President Gerald Ford in the 1976 GOP primaries.
"It was a big deal because he was the grassroots, running against the establishment," Paul said.
GOP White House hopeful Jeb Bush argued that the 40th president would agree with him, and not the front-running Donald Trump, on immigration.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recalled casting his first vote for Reagan over Jimmy Carter in 1980, saying, "Boy, am I glad I did it."
Those were just a few of the many mentions Reagan garnered Wednesday evening during in more than four hours of debate among 15 candidates who, in two sessions, who stood in the shadow of Reagan's Air Force One at his presidential library in Southern California.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich wanted voters to know he "actually flew on this plane with Reagan when I was a congressman." He said he won his first public office in 1982 running "on the Reagan program."
It's no surprise to hear Republican White House hopefuls invoke Reagan's name: A decade after his death, he remains a GOP icon who enjoys wider popularity now during two terms in office. They sometimes did so while ignoring inconvenient details from his long record as California governor and a two-term president.
Walker and Bush both cited Reagan as the guide for their tax-cut plans, yet neither mentioned that the icon of supply side policy - which Bush's father once called "voodoo economics" - also raised income taxes, gasoline taxes and payroll taxes.
Also noteworthy was how Reagan's legacy was parsed, with some candidates citing Reagan as justification for rejecting current GOP orthodoxy, while others admitted to disagreements with decisions Reagan made.
Bush, who spent much of the night on the offensive against Trump, said he's following Reagan's lead on immigration.
"Are we going to take the Reagan approach, the hopeful optimistic approach, the approach that says that, you come to our country legally, you pursue your dreams with a vengeance, you create opportunities for all of us?" Bush asked, before adding, "I'm on the Reagan side of this."
Reagan signed an immigration law overhaul in 1986 that some Republicans now deride as "amnesty."
Bush's argument comes days after a conservative immigration group, the National Immigration Forum, began running an ad criticizing Trump, Walker and others for their strident rhetoric on immigration. The ad, which ran on CNN during the debate, quotes Reagan's farewell address, where he celebrates the U.S. as "open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here." Bush's son, George P. Bush, sits on the organization's board.
On foreign policy, Paul, who stands out for his "non-interventionist" approach on foreign policy, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is perhaps the most aggressive in promising to send more ground troops to the Middle East, each said their positions honor Reagan's mantra of "peace through strength."
But Paul went a step further to mock some of his colleagues for citing Reagan in their tough talk on dealing with Russia and Iran.
"Carly Fiorina also said we're not going to talk with Putin. Well, think if Reagan had said that during the Cold War? We continued to talk with the Russians throughout the Cold War, which is much more significant that where we are now," he said.
In the early debate, for those candidates polling at the bottom of the field, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal mentioned several Republican nominees to the Supreme Court that he cast as "mistakes." Among them: Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee who wrote the recent decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio credited Reagan with drawing him to politics, adding that his Cuban grandfather "loved Ronald Reagan." But when pressed by CNN host Jake Tapper about how the Reagan administration reacted to climate change, Rubio kept his distance.
Tapper read statements from former Secretary of State George Shultz about how Reagan urged industry to proactively address ozone depletion. Why not do the same to combat climate change now, as Shultz has argued to this year's candidates.
Said Rubio: "Because we're not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government that we are under now wants to do."
Christie sided with Rubio, adding of Reagan's secretary of state, "Listen, everybody makes a mistake every once in a while."