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Republicans gather to debate in Reagan's shadow

Story Highlights

• Republican candidates to debate at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
• Candidates try to align selves with Reagan, patron saint of conservatism
• Part of Reagan's legacy is reaching across aisle to opposition
By Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- For Republicans, the Ronald Reagan Library is sacred ground. That's why it's the ideal setting for the first Republican presidential debate of this campaign cycle.

"All of the candidates are trying to align themselves with Ronald Reagan," said Duke Blackwood, director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. "We thought, 'What a great place to have a debate.' "

For decades, conservatives fought and sacrificed to realize their goal of gaining control of the Republican Party. When Reagan was elected president in 1980, their dream came true.

In March, several Republican presidential candidates addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. They all invoked Reagan and his conservative ideals.

"Thirty years ago, in this very conference, one man stood up and told America what was needed," said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. "It was conservatism."

For conservative Republicans, 1980 was the Year One.

"I campaigned for him because I said that guy is right," said Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. "He was true to principles, and he said it with a smile.''

All Republicans now call themselves Reaganites.

"He is, in fact, one of my heroes," former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said.

Reaganism is not just conservatism. It's also leadership.

"Ronald Reagan was a leader, which is a combination of being a visionary and a practical person who can achieve results," Giuliani said.

We asked Blackwood what was the secret of Reagan's political success.

"Communication," he said. "You've got to be able to know what your vision is. You've got to communicate that vision."

But there was something else as well. Reagan could reach out to his political adversaries, whether it was Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill or Mikhail Gorbachev, the communist leader of the Soviet Union.

A few days before the Republican debate, the featured guest at the Reagan Library was Sen. Edward Kennedy, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts.

"What we're trying to emulate here at the Reagan Library is to reach across the aisle and say, 'You know, Sen. Kennedy, we may not agree with you on everything, but it is a good, constructive debate we are looking for,'" Blackwood said. "We are proud to have Sen. Kennedy here."

The Reagan legacy persists in other ways, too. Like actors turning into politicians. Fred Thompson? Arnold Schwarzenegger?

"There is just no way I could put my mind around what Ronald Reagan would think about Arnold Schwarzenegger," Blackwood said.

Mourners in Washington admire a portrait of Ronald Reagan after the former president's death in June 2004.



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