The Gipper’s Ghost Haunts GOPers As They Head To Reagan Library Debate

September 7, 2011 2:02 a.m.

On Wednesday evening, the field of candidates hoping to get a shot at defeating President Obama will take the stage in Simi Valley, CA for the first in a string of debates through September that mark the spooling up of the presidential race into the 24/7 scooplet-and-punditry fest we all know and love.

Obama’s approval ratings are at an all-time low, and sour economic figures across the board make him more vulnerable than ever. But heading into the debate at the Ronald Reagan library, the talk among the candidates hasn’t been the man in the White House — it’s been about the man whose name is on the front of the venue they’ll be debating in.

Reagan is, of course, the sainted paragon of all that is Republican. And as they gather in a building dedicated to him, the GOP candidates have been bickering about his ghost.Reagan hasn’t always been so popular. Like all mere mortals who work in the Oval Office, he took flak from all sides when he was in office. For the politicians running in his name for the presidency this year, that era is coming back to haunt them.

Ron Paul — whose campaign has not caught the same fire it did last time around — kicked things off Tuesday with his new TV ad reminding voters that frontrunner Rick Perry used to be a Democrat. And, worse, supported Al Gore’s 1988 presidential bid.

“A young Texan named Ron Paul was one of only four congressmen to endorse Ronald Reagan’s campaign for president,” the ad’s narrator reads, attempting to grab the Reagan mantle for Paul.

Not so fast, the Perry campaign said. They pointed to this 1987 letter Paul wrote resigning from the GOP to become a Libertarian (he ran as the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 1988.) The letter is a diatribe against Reagan, and proves — the Perry folks say — that Paul is not the one carrying the Reagan flame into the debate.

That honor goes to Perry, his campaign says.

“Ronald Reagan was one of the most significant presidents of our generation, and a proven fiscal conservative,” spokesperson Mark Miner said in a statement. “Like President Reagan, Gov. Perry has cut taxes and freed employers from government regulations that kill jobs.”

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney — who’s seen his status as frontrunner come to an end with the advent of the Perry candidacy — has his own Reagan tribute to tout in the debate. Back in January he sang Reagan’s praises in an op-ed published in USA Today. And on Tuesday he gave the Gipper quite a shout-out in his long and detailed economic plan. Romney outlined his idea for the “Reagan Economic Zone,” which he described as “a partnership among countries committed to free enterprise and free trade.”

Democratic allies are also getting in on the act. The pro-health care reform group Protect Your Care sent around a this TPM report around to reporters to show that the Republicans talking at the Reagan library are actually running away from his legacy. The report outlines testimony from former Reagan administration Solicitor General Charles Fried in which he states unequivocally that the insurance mandate contained in the health care law is constitutional. That runs counter to the view of just about every Republican politician everywhere, including those running for president.

Protect Your Care also points out that Reagan “expanded access to Medicare and Social Security,” and even allowed revenue increases to confront’ the nation’s deficit problems.

But those are Reagan legacies you’re not likely to hear much about from the podium tonight.

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