When moderator Grover Norquist asked the five candidates seeking the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee to name their hero in a debate last month, he issued one restriction: someone other than Ronald Reagan.
Indeed, had he not said that, all five likely would have voted for the 40th president in lock step. President Reagan, who would have turned 100 years old on Sunday, still holds a unique place of reverence for Republicans. One candidate managed to sneak Reagan in anyway. When asked to name his favorite book, Reince Priebus – now RNC chairman – chose The Reagan Diaries.
So in this year of Reagan nostalgia, a competition to assume the mantle of the Republican icon – a “Reagan primary” of sorts – could break out among the Republicans jockeying (or thinking of jockeying) for their party’s 2012 presidential nomination. Here’s the state of play among 10 possible contenders:
Sarah Palin has been favorably compared to Reagan. Of all the possible candidates who have hinted at a run, she’s the most charismatic – but also highly divisive, as Reagan was. Also like Reagan, Ms. Palin will never pass for a policy wonk. Reagan stood for clear, simple conservative principles, as Palin does today.
In contrast, Palin does not have the resume Reagan did. He served two full terms as governor of California. Palin quit as governor of Alaska after 2-1/2 years. But in the most important difference, Palin has not been able to attract Democratic support, a skill that helped Reagan to the presidency.
Mitt Romney, too, has certain Reaganesque qualities. The former Massachusetts governor has the looks (and the hair) and the sunny disposition. Somehow, though, the wealthy Mr. Romney has never managed to connect with regular folks the way Reagan did. And assuming he runs for president again, Romney will still have to answer for his old moderate views, including the Massachusetts health-care reform that served as a model for President Obama’s. Reagan, too, moved to the right as he entered national politics, but his conservative bona fides were never questioned.
Mike Huckabee is another former governor who may run for president again. He shares Reagan’s affability, and skill as a broadcaster and folksy communicator. But as governor of Arkansas, he at times acted as a social liberal – signing, for example, legislation that would provide health insurance to low-income children. Of late, he has been a vocal supporter of Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity, in contrast with some Republicans (like Palin) who call it government overreach.
Tim Pawlenty is yet another former governor who has clearly telegraphed that he’s running. He holds the distinction of coming from the one state – Minnesota – that did not vote for Reagan in his 1984 reelection. But Pawlenty has the Reagan affability, if not the charisma, and small-government record that could give him some appeal.
Newt Gingrich is a fervent devotee of Reagan, and keeper of his ideological flame. Mr. Gingrich and his wife produced a recent documentary and photo book on Reagan. But Gingrich also demonstrated a lack of discipline during his four years as speaker of the House, leading some Republicans to suggest he’s better off on the sidelines as a conservative ideas machine, not an active politician. Still, as he moves into his late 60s, it’s now or never for a presidential run. Reagan remains the oldest first-time president in US history.
Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, seems truly undecided about running. But if he were to run, no one would accuse him of seeming Reaganesque – though he did serve as a political adviser to Reagan. As budget director under the second President Bush, he won notice for his budget-cutting skills, and as governor of an economically hard-hit state, he has won awards for his fiscal stewardship.
Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi, is likely to remain a back-room operator in national Republican politics. But his name has been floated for the presidency, based in part on his charm (see Reagan, southern version) and political shrewdness. He also served as a political aide to Reagan. More likely he will wind up on the short list for running mate.
John Thune, senator from South Dakota, has been encouraged to run by fellow senators, including Republican leader Mitch McConnell, though he has no national profile. He has also taken some positions that tea partyers would object to, such as the 2008 bank bailout. But after the election of Mr. Obama, one cannot rule out the potential for a young, good-looking senator to go far.
Rick Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania, lost his 2006 reelection bid badly – not a good precursor to a national political campaign. But in conservative circles, he’s seen as a true believer on both fiscal and social issues.
Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah, is resigning as US ambassador to China on April 30 – and may well head right into the presidential fray. Like others in the field of possibles, including fellow Mormon Romney, he’s got the good looks and the hair. But he also has foreign policy smarts and experience, which, depending on events on the world stage, could be an asset in a presidential run. He also worked as a staff assistant in the Reagan White House.
Political analysts warn against going too far in any efforts to channel Reagan in the 2012 race. To young voters, in particular, who have no first-hand memories of his presidency, he’s a figure in history books.
Reagan’s sunny optimism and positive vision for the future, coupled with his preference for small government, lower taxes, and freedom over tyranny, are worthy of emulation, says John Gizzi, political editor of Human Events magazine.
But "as for being 'another Reagan,' one cannot do that anymore than a Democrat can be 'another FDR' or 'another JFK,' " Mr. Gizzi says. "People are different and the issues of one era are usually different from another."