The death of former president Ronald Reagan has put Sen. John F. Kerry on the political sidelines, elevated President Bush to center stage and touched off a debate tinged by partisanship about the possible impact of Reagan's legacy on the November election.
Republicans see the events surrounding Reagan's death, coming at the end of a week in which Bush will have been visible on the world stage, as providing a potential circuit breaker from two months of unrelenting bad news in Iraq that has driven down Bush's approval ratings and raised Democratic hopes for victory. They also believe that Reagan's death will remind Americans of the effect of strong, if sometimes controversial, presidential leadership built on conservative convictions.
Their anticipation is that the week's events will give Bush an opportunity to steady himself politically and assert his leadership in a time of national mourning for Reagan and collective commemoration of one of the most stirring events in U.S. history, the storming of the Normandy beaches in 1944.
Democrats see the week far differently. Some believe Reagan's death and memorial services surrounding it will have no significant impact on the campaign, that it is merely an interruption of forces that have moved against Bush over the past few months.
Others believe that the commentary and recollections of Reagan's presidency will reflect unfavorably on Bush, despite some GOP efforts to cast Bush in Reagan's image. If Reagan helped restore respect for the United States in the world, they say, Bush's presidency has had the opposite effect.
The only certain impact of Reagan's death on the campaign is that it has mostly stilled, for this week at least, the longest and most intensive general election the country has seen.
Kerry decided to suspend all active campaigning this week, and Bush already was tied up with the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in France and until Thursday the meetings with leaders of the Group of Eight nations in Georgia. Neither campaign has suspended advertising, although the Bush campaign will not air its ads on Friday, the day of Reagan's funeral in Washington.
For now, events have pushed Iraq out of the headlines, and Republicans say the combination of the D-Day ceremonies and Reagan's services is likely to give Bush a short-term boost. "Both have put President George W. Bush in a position of national leadership," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. "That portrays him even stronger as a national leader and brings us together."
Bush's campaign has embraced the Reagan legacy, at least on its Web site, where the customary home page was replaced by a memorial to the former president that includes Bush's tribute and links to eight of Reagan's best-known speeches and his last letter to the American people announcing that he had Alzheimer's disease.
Ken Mehlman, campaign manager for the Bush-Cheney committee, said that although elections tend to be forward-looking, lessons from Reagan's presidency might influence voters' thinking this fall. "In any election, voters can learn from what happened in the past," he said. "What happened in the past was that you had a leader who had a very bold agenda built around freedom -- freedom at home, which meant lower taxes and less regulation, and freedom in the world. . . . The result of those policies was a country that was more prosperous and a world that was more free."
Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, said most Americans will not be paying such close attention to the details of Reagan's presidency. "It will be an important moment for the country, remembering him, but in political terms, voting terms, I don't see any discernible impact," he said. "I think when we look back from November 2004, it will be very hard to think this week was anything but a pause in what else was unfolding."
Greenberg said that, from a recent poll, he concluded that Reagan is a historical figure whose relevance to today's politics is quite limited. He said in the estimation of the public, Reagan has not achieved the standing of either Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, both of whom he said have transcended party affiliation. Reagan, he said, remains a revered figure among Republicans, but a more controversial leader among non-Republicans.
A number of Democrats close to Kerry declined to speak on the record about the political impact of Reagan's death. One Democratic strategist noted that Reagan's political accomplishments, after a rocky start, included a robust economy that created millions of jobs and renewed respect for the United States. "Those aren't George W. Bush's strengths," this Democrat said.
Democratic strategist Steve McMahon said, "The focus on Ronald Reagan will inevitably lead to comparisons that frankly don't leave President Bush in such a good light."
But Mehlman argued that Reagan was often as controversial as Bush has been. "People attacked him for placing intermediate-range missiles in Europe or his support for national missile defense system," he said, recalling that Reagan's policies were vilified in many European capitals. "The result was freedom and security, from which everyone benefited."