Salena Zito

Twenty-nine. That is how many times the word "Reagan," as in Ronald Reagan, was evoked descriptively or in homage during the first debate among Republican presidential candidates.

If people watching the debate had been playing the "name" drinking game -- guzzle a beer or a shot of liquor every time a predetermined name is mentioned -- and had picked Reagan as the name, none of them could have gotten out of bed the next morning.

Had they picked George Bush, whose name was brought up once, they would have been stone-cold sober for 90 minutes.

Democrats, independents and Republicans alike still gravitate toward Reagan and his message, decades after his presidency. The man who built the modern Republican Party remains the benchmark everyone wants to achieve. And why shouldn't they?

Reagan's broad appeal was one part charm, two parts logic: He advocated strong fiscal policies that controlled spending and cut taxes, believed in a build-up of the military and advocated a robust national defense that stood firm behind a peace-through-strength motto.

The conservative base is poring over the records of the candidates to see whose candidacy does not support those policies.

Democrat strategist Steve McMahon said that is why the Democrats' candidates will have an easier time. "The Democratic field is clearer; they collectively say that we need a new direction," said McMahon. "Republicans are less sure; they are consumed with how to defend a failed policy in Iraq."

Ultimately, Republicans will be well served to look for a candidate who can conduct himself in time of trial, who can look at the landscape and tell America that he will lead it to a place.

Americans still want someone who will fight terrorists but do it in a way that is disciplined, focused and forthright. In many ways that is the failure of the Bush administration; Bush was never able to show Americans where he wanted to take them. That has been his disconnect.

Reagan connected. He wasn't afraid of conflict because, ultimately, he knew what America would look like at the other end of the battle. And that was his focus.

"There is a real advantage in a Republican primary in running side by side (with) one of the most popular Republican presidents ... who was a great communicator, had charisma, was well liked and was the ultimate 'happy warrior,' " said McMahon.

"Those are all good things to be as a candidate. It is another way to distinguish yourself implicitly, that you are not going to be George Bush but you are going to be a lot different."


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.
 


TOWNHALL MEDIA GROUP