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THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION / CATHLEEN DECKER

GOP Candidates Huddle in Icon's Shadow

September 30, 1997|CATHLEEN DECKER

You could sense the shadow of the Big Guy looming over Anaheim the other day, his head cocked winningly, his cowboy hat perched at just the right angle, when all the Republicans who want to be president gathered for that familiar tradition--kissing up to California.

One by one, they came up to the podium at the state Republican Party convention. Arizona Sen. John McCain was lauded as the state's "adopted senator," seeing as how the two real ones are, ahem, Democrats. Former Vice President Dan Quayle, who is now living in Arizona, fashioned himself the grown-up boy from next door.

Fred Thompson, the erstwhile actor and current senator from Tennessee, told tales of making movies with Tom Cruise. Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson came next, then Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft.

Every single one of them invoked the same name. It was as if they all shared the same wish, to attach themselves firmly to the coattails of the one man they cannot be, the one man who, at every California Republican gathering, looms larger than any one real candidate.

Figuratively, he is still running, 31 years after he won the California governorship. The shadow candidate: Ronald Reagan.

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Both parties do this with their icons, reminded Republican political analyst Dan Schnur. Look at how Bill Clinton, seeking the White House, dredged up a picture of himself as a fresh-faced high school boy, shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy. A generation before, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the one.

But somehow the yearning of California Republicans for Reagan seems more poignant as the former president lives out his twilight years, sometimes oblivious even to the comforts of his Bel-Air home.

The desire for coattails can spawn some distinctly pointed comparisons between Reagan and the men who want to be him. Supporters of Tennessean Thompson, for example, highlighted their organizing fliers with this blunt appeal:

"Actors can make good presidents. At least they know when they are or aren't acting." If it wasn't clear exactly what that meant, you can be sure it was an insult to Clinton.

Of course, Reaganesque posturing is a subset of the more general California appeal, typically made by candidates who hope to score here and then pray yet again that the California vote will help decide the election. Most of the time, guaranteed, it doesn't.

Election year in and election year out, the appeals to California go on. Just last year, Bob Dole offered to send his wife, Elizabeth, here to live, if only to erase any doubt that he was serious about competing in the Golden State. Years earlier, George Bush played chef in an Irvine pizzeria, hoping that the cameras would catch him dishing up culinary delicacies favored by casual Californians.

Sometimes the appeals go musical, like Ross Perot's campaign blaring "California Here I Come" when he arrived. Ashcroft updated it the other day. "They say, 'California here I come,' " he told convention delegates. "Maybe I should say, 'California, here I am.' "

There is an immense cultural gap between California and many of the states these candidates call home, and occasionally they hurtle headfirst into that chasm despite the best of intentions. That, as much as anything, illustrates why Texan Phil Gramm never quite caught on here when he ran for president in 1996.

His difficulties could have been predicted a year earlier, when the drawling Texas senator spoke to the state Republican convention. As he typically does, Gramm infused his speech with references to a Mexia, Texas, printer named Dickie Flatt, an ink-under-the-fingernails everyman who serves as Gramm's touchstone. At the back of the room Schnur, who was then working for Gramm's presidential opponent Pete Wilson, was asked whether the Texan could, as he pledged, win California.

Nope, came the deadpan reply: "Dickie Flatt don't surf."

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It is pretty clear why Reagan still inspires adoration among Republicans, almost nine years after he left the presidency.

"Ronald Reagan defines Republicans and conservatives to most of the people in our party," Schnur said. "It's only natural that they're going to look back to him for examples of what to do and say."

The difficulties arise when the shadow of the man blocks from view the flesh-and-blood candidates who want to succeed him. After the last of the presidential speakers took his turn the other day, a Sacramento County delegate said that they each had their particular niche. But Reagan, he said, was who you measured the others by.

"He's perhaps more of a yardstick," he said. "Certainly, there's not going to be another."

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