When Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.) was in graduate school at Harvard University in the mid-1970s, he often tuned in to a Boston country music station to listen to Ronald Reagan's political commentaries. "It felt a little bit like listening to Radio Free Europe behind the Iron Curtain," he said.
Jim Brulte, Republican leader in the California state Senate, recalls putting Reagan-for-Governor bumper stickers on cars as a 10-year-old. "Reagan was the North Star of politics for us," he wrote in an e-mail yesterday. "He is the reason I am in politics and service in his administration was a lifelong dream come true."
Ken Mehlman, President Bush's reelection campaign manager, was 14 when Reagan was elected president in 1980. "I went door-to-door for Ronald Reagan in Baltimore County," he said. "His optimism, his values, his commitment to freedom were so important to our generation."
There are few Republicans alive today who do not identify in some way with the 40th president of the United States, so significant was his influence on his party. But for political figures including Cox, Brulte and Mehlman, the connections are vivid and personal.
They and others like them are the Reagan generation of American politics, conservatives who came of age politically under Reagan and were inspired by his example to enter politics, public service or elective office.
They endured scorn in the 1970s as conservatives on college campuses, where often they felt like outcasts. Now they hold congressional seats and populate Capitol Hill staffs, federal agency offices, state houses and political campaigns across the country, committed to carrying on Reagan's legacy and ideas.
"He made us optimistic as Republicans that we could actually become a majority party," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who was executive director of the Oklahoma Republican Party when Reagan was elected in 1980.
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) said Reagan molded the thinking and style of Republicans elected to the House in 1994 when the GOP seized control. "Everybody easily identifies the Class of 1994 with [former House speaker] Newt Gingrich," Ehrlich said. "But if you look at us, a lot of us were in our thirties, post-Vietnam, and we had grown up and matured politically during the Reagan years. He had a profound influence on our class."
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, ran Youth for Reagan in Virginia during the 1976 primaries and described the former president as "my modern-day philosophical hero," adding, "Ronald Reagan is the man who inspired me to enter into politics while I was a law student at the University of Virginia."
Reagan's controversial positions are today accepted doctrine among the Reagan generation of conservatives. They embraced his agenda when many of the party's elders were reluctant to do so, from the late president's tax-cutting philosophy to his anti-government rhetoric to the antiabortion, pro-religion elements of his message.
"This is generational," said Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. "I don't know how many people I've talked to who say, if you talk to [Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush or George W. Bush, you're talking to Ronald Reagan, ideologically, not George Herbert Walker Bush. They are Reagan Republicans in the way that George Herbert Walker Bush is a Richard Nixon Republican."
Members of the Reagan generation point to particular moments or experiences when they were touched directly by a speech, a statement, an action that led them to pursue a political career.
Stuart Roy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), said his first encounter with the mechanics of electoral politics came as a seventh-grader when he helped his best friend's father pound yard signs for Reagan's 1980 campaign in Starkville, Miss.
Roy said a paper he wrote about Reagan for a high school English class led his teacher to suggest he go into politics. Roy, 35, has worked in scores of congressional campaigns since, before heading DeLay's communications team. "It turned on a light bulb that I was interested in electoral politics and policy," he said. "Reagan is the reason I'm a Republican."
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) spent the last six years of Reagan's presidency on active duty in the Air Force. His admiration for Reagan began to form with the military pay raises Reagan signed in the early 1980s. "My first impression of Ronald Reagan was, I really liked this guy. . . . I thought he was a cool dude, I thought he had a great sense of humor, he made conservatism not only acceptable but cool, and he brought a dignity but a personal touch to office that it needed."
"He helped complete what was going on in American conservatism," said Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), who won his first election to the state legislature in 1984. "He showed it was a philosophy that can command a support of a majority coalition in the modern age."
Cox, who served in Reagan's White House before running for Congress, said that as powerful as Reagan's personality and style were, it was his conservatism that shaped the younger generation. "Certainly in my case, an avuncular personality would have done nothing to cause me to quit my day job and go into public service," he said. "It was the ideas."
Even in the years he was out of sight publicly because of his Alzheimer's disease, Reagan continued to shape and influence GOP politicians, and Cole said he believes that will continue.
"I think he can last, like Franklin Roosevelt did, for a long time. . . . He's still going to have a powerful and personal impact on the country, certainly on the culture of the Republican Party. How many candidates run today as the Reaganite in the race, who say, 'I'm the true heir.' How often do you hear that?" he asked.
Staff writers Lori Montgomery and Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.