Friday’s theme in the Republican presidential primary was a battle for the legacy of Ronald Reagan.
The Romney team hosted a conference call with ex-Reagan staffers who claimed Newt Gingrich had no claim to the Gipper’s legacy. The Gingrich team fired back with ex-Reagan staffers of their own (and a former biographer of Reagan) who claimed Newt was the evident heir of the GOP hero.
How to arbitrate this division? TPM reached out to Lou Cordia, the head of the Ronald Reagan Alumni Association.
In 2007, Cordia told World Net Daily that he “considers Gingrich, along with Reagan, one of the ‘two conservative revolutionaries of the last 100 years.’” But he told the website back then that it would be hard for Gingrich to get the nomination because of his personal history.
This time around, Cordia told me Gingrich is leading the way among ex-Reagan staffers. Here’s his explanation of the breakdown among the association members from an email exchange we shared Friday afternoon:
“In my conversations with many, my informal survey would conclude that Reagan Alumni support is in the following descending order (and I’ve added the most often-stated reasons):”
1. Newt Gingrich - “primarily for his leading the 2nd wave of a conservative revolution in 1994 and folks believing we need fundamental change from Obama’s direction. And having Michael Reagan endorse him helped tremendously.”
2. Mitt Romney - “for successfully advancing a number of conservative policies in the Democrat-dominated State of Massachusetts, including “taking MA from billions in deficits to billions in surplus” (said by a few folks, but I personally didn’t fact check).”
3. Rick Santorum - “for working closely with conservative groups on legislation while in the Senate, including leading on Welfare Reform.
4. Ron Paul - “for his limited-government principles that libertarians espouse.”
So: each of the candidates gets their slice of the Reagan legacy according to Cordia. But, like in the nomination hunt itself, there can be only one winner. And according to the man who stays connected with thousands for former Reaganites, that winner is Gingrich. But will it really help him in Florida? Odds are that if Romney triumphs there, Reaganites will find plenty of similarities between the Cold Warrior and the former Massachusetts governor. Some of them were elaborated on the Romney call today by former Reagan administration Ambassador Rich Williamson. He explained that Romney’s less-than-stellar past when it comes to hewing to conservative principles and even voting for a Democrat in the 1992 presidential primary actually makes him more like Reagan than those who revere him in the GOP might think.
“Reagan was a Democrat,” Williamson said. “President Reagan had Democrats in the administration…but he, as he got older, he got wiser and became a consistent and the most effective voice for conservative principles.”
“I think Gov. Romney last night [in the Jan. 26 debate] explained that during the ’80s and early ’90s he was engaged in business and not that politically active,” Williamson added. “He also said that during his governorship, he became more conservative as he wrestled with these issues. So we’re not trying to claim one is closer or not closer to Reagan, we’re simply saying…Newt Gingrich exaggerates his role and relationship [to Reagan].”