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Paging Reagan

GOP presidential candidates come West to try to tap into a Republican legacy that has been long neglected.

May 04, 2007

THE SYMBOLISM for Thursday evening's Republican presidential debate was decidedly strained: A stream of uncharismatic faces making the pilgrimage to GOP holy land, hoping to find salvation for a party diminished by seven years of President Bush.

The 10 hopefuls at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library strove (again and again) to invoke the Gipper's sainted memory, but the contrast between the venerated past and perplexing present was on clear display. How did regulation-happy Arizona Sen. John McCain become the heir to Reagan's small-government legacy? In what parallel universe could a former mayor of New York be leading a Republican presidential contest?

And yet the first Republican debate of the 2008 campaign was, in its own way, encouraging -- for the Republicans, for California and for the nation. The breadth of small-fries in the field makes it hard to define a coherent Republican message, but that's a sign of intellectual ferment in the troubled GOP. The silver lining for a party on the verge of the wilderness is the need to go "off message" and entertain a variety of ideas.

The initial Republican field is capacious enough to contain a strongly religious "double-life" opponent of both abortion and the death penalty (Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback), a libertarian gadfly (Texas Rep. Ron Paul), a successful former governor and bureaucratic reformer (erstwhile Bush Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson) and -- in Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo -- the nation's most prominent and radical immigration restrictionist who also happens to be a tax-hating, medical-marijuana-supporting heir to Reagan's Western maverick legacy.

This is not to endorse any of the above ideas or to claim that any of these candidates will end up as president. Indeed, even first-tier candidates McCain, Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney look awkward dealing with the shadow of George Bush's unpopular incumbency.

The Western states, and California in particular, have been where Republicans go when they need an infusion of ideas and energy. The early primary schedule, the presence of the country's most charismatic Republican governor and the eternal desire to tap into Reagan's fading legacy are putting into play -- at least for campaigning purposes -- a state that hasn't voted GOP since 1988. You wouldn't know it from recent history, but California has often been good to the Republican Party. And the United States needs a GOP candidate who understands and maybe even shares the often iconoclastic values of the American West.

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