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Reagan magic proves elusive

Try as they may, the two GOP candidates fall short of being a "full Reagan,'' fans of the 40th president conclude.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 2000

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. -- "We don't talk about that," whispers Jo Anglin, glancing nervously toward a fenced-off, mountaintop crypt that someday will hold the human remains of Ronald Reagan.

Like other uniformed guides at the Reagan presidential library here, Anglin approaches the subject of the 40th president of the United States with such reverence that she is even reluctant to acknowledge his mortality.

"This man, he cares about the people; he loves God and country," Anglin says. "We are still reaping the benefits of his economic programs."

Reagan's death is a particularly delicate issue these days. At age 89, the former president is reported to be very frail and housebound in Bel Air, passing through the final stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Throughout his years in public life, Reagan was never seen as an ordinary politician -- not by his supporters, nor by his enemies, and certainly not in his home state of California. So it is not surprising that as his storybook life flickers out, his admirers would honor him as a demigod.

Under normal circumstances, it would be perfectly acceptable for an aspiring presidential candidate to compare himself to Reagan. After all, Republican candidates regularly invoke the name of Abraham Lincoln, and Democrats never hesitate to appropriate the image of John F. Kennedy.

But when Republican presidential hopefuls George W. Bush and John McCain came to California last week trying to wrap themselves in the Reagan mantle, many voters found the comparison either unacceptable or just lame.

As much as California Republicans yearn for another Ronald Reagan, it is hard for library docent Jo Anglin and like-minded voters to see any similarities between McCain or Bush and their larger-than-life hero.

"Each of them -- McCain and Bush -- has some basis for making their claim to the Reagan legacy," says Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, a frequent speaker at the Reagan library. "But it doesn't add up to a full Reagan."

Even if Reagan could speak for himself, he would not likely settle the dispute over which of the candidates is his philosophical and political heir. Reagan never took sides in a quarrel between two Republicans, and thus his wife, Nancy, has declined to endorse either McCain or Bush.

Both men have won endorsements from other people associated with Reagan. Ken Duberstein, a lobbyist who was Reagan's former chief of staff, is one of McCain's strongest backers. Bush, of course, has the support of his father, who was Ronald Reagan's vice president for eight years.

California's big prize

When it comes to campaigning in California, it is entirely understandable that both McCain and Bush would try to identify with Reagan.

While many presidential scholars do not include Reagan on the list of America's truly great presidents, he is remembered very fondly here, even by many people who opposed him while he was in office.

For politicians such as McCain and Bush, invoking Reagan's name in California is something akin to endorsing farm subsidies in Iowa, lauding the invention of the automobile in Michigan or honoring the memory of the Confederacy in South Carolina.

Although California is only one of 17 states that will hold primary elections Tuesday, it offers the winner of the Republican presidential-preference balloting a rich prize of 162 delegates to the GOP convention. As a result, both McCain and Bush are campaigning intensely here.

California poses a particularly tough test for McCain, whose candidacy has broad appeal among independents and Democrats just as Reagan's had in 1980 and 1984. Analysts say it is possible that McCain could win the so-called "beauty contest" among all voters, but fail to win the delegates, which are alloted only on the basis of votes cast by registered Republicans.

A Los Angeles Times poll published Wednesday showed Bush was beating McCain, 47 percent to 26 percent, among Republican voters, but his margin was only 26 percent to 20 percent among all likely voters.

Still, McCain insists he is leading in the Northeastern state primaries that will be held Tuesday, and he claims to be gaining about 1 percentage point a day on Bush among Republicans in California.

McCain's GOP focus

When McCain refers to himself as "a proud Reagan Republican," as he does repeatedly, his goal is to dispel the prevailing notion in the news media that he is more liberal than Bush or that his supporters are mostly Democrats and independents.

At the same time, it is McCain's ability to reach beyond the party that makes him most like Reagan. The key to Reagan's success was his appeal to the so-called "Reagan Democrats." The difference between them is that Reagan's base of support was squarely in the GOP, and McCain's is not.

McCain's supporters see his popularity among Democrats and independents as an indication that he would have more success than Bush in running against Vice President Al Gore in the general election in November. But hard-core Republicans think he wants to abandon the basic GOP principles.

To prove his Reagan Republicanism, McCain says he has piled up a strong conservative voting record in Congress, that he wants to strengthen the military and that he, like Reagan, promises to eliminate waste in federal spending.

Republican Bill Bauer, a 57-year-old Vietnam veteran from Reno Valley, says he will vote McCain because the Arizona senator shares two of Reagan's traits: He supports the military, and he speaks his mind.

"McCain is the one who can pull us back together, like Reagan did," says Bauer. "Reagan was the same way. I think he wanted to get the military back on its feet. McCain is more likely to do that than Bush."

But Bauer admits that Reagan, who never saw combat during his military service in World War II, never inspired military men quite like McCain, who was held for more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

Like Bauer, Norm Tatum, 63, of Riverside, initially saw similarities between McCain and Reagan. But Tatum grew disillusioned when McCain began attacking Bush and his supporters, including televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Tatum was listening to the talk radio show hosted by Reagan's elder son, Michael, last week when McCain was interviewed on the air. Although Reagan had previously says favorable things about McCain, he hung up on the presidential candidate when he persisted in his attack on Robertson.

Reagan was furious. "He wants to talk hate, and then he uses my father's name," the former president's son said indignantly.

At that point, Tatum changed his mind about McCain. "That's it," he said to himself. "I am not voting for McCain. He's just a little man after power."

Cannon, whose biography entitled Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime is about to be reissued in April with some new material, noted that Reagan never ran any attack ads, as McCain has done against Bush.

"This sort of attack-dog thing that McCain does is very un-Reaganesque," Cannon says. "Reagan's enemies were always the amorphous "they.' He never ran an attack ad."

Bush's tax cut

One of Bush's latest television ads brags that his tax cut proposal has been called "Reaganesque." This claim is the centerpiece of Bush's effort to identify himself with the Reagan legacy.

"Sen. McCain may be trying to invoke Ronald Reagan's name, but Gov. Bush is running on Ronald Reagan's principles," says Bush communications director Karen Hughes.

Cannon, however, is quick to note that Bush's tax cut proposal would serve a different purpose than Reagan's. While Reagan was trying to jump-start a flagging economy, Bush would return the tax surplus to Americans already enjoying record levels of prosperity.

Given the current choice between paying down the national debt or enacting a massive tax cut, it is not clear what Reagan might have done. While he advocated tax cuts, he also railed against the nation's indebtedness.

Cannon says Bush has abandoned his original goal of unifying the Republican Party, as Reagan did in 1980.

"Bush started out with the kind of party-unifying impulse that distinguished Reagan's career," he says. "But he has moved away from it. I don't think he's Reagan by a long shot."

Anglin, the Reagan library guide and a Bush supporter, was perplexed when asked if she saw any concrete similarity between her hero, Reagan, and the two men seeking the GOP nomination. "I can't say yes," she replies.

After pondering it for a few minutes, she observes that Bush, like Reagan, seems to be a compassionate man. "I would think he cares more about people than McCain," she says.

But Bush's supporters are not entirely certain what to expect from a man whose only public office has been governor of Texas.

Another Bush supporter, Gloria Fox of Fullerton, says she hopes he will be a leader in the Reagan mold but is not sure. "It's just so hard to know about Bush," she says. "He still has to prove himself."

Reagan was similarly untested in national government when he went to Washington in 1981 after having served two terms as governor of California.

In the final analysis, most of the voters interviewed for this article seemed to agree with state Assemblyman Tom McClintock, a Republican who represents the Simi Valley area, that neither McCain nor Bush would be as good as Reagan in bringing conservative Republicans, Democrats and independents under one tent.

"Reagan spoke to the working men and women who wanted to live out their lives without the government telling them what to do," says McClintock. "I am not convinced that any of the Republican candidates, with the possible exception of Alan Keyes, is speaking to those concerns. They are not speaking clearly to the old Reagan coalition."

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