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Claiming Bush-Reagan Ties May Be Risky Strategy

The Bush-Cheney re-election team says it will not invoke images of the late President Ronald Reagan (search) in advertisements or otherwise, dispelling speculation that the current president may attempt to harness recently revived good feelings for Reagan to his advantage.

"We have looked at that question, and it comes across, especially given the people’s feelings ... and the tremendous memorial services, and it seems a bit crass," said one senior spokesman for the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign.

But not all Republicans believe that emphasizing the similarities in policy and philosophy would be distasteful. In fact, if subtly done, it could remind Bush supporters why they like him and perhaps sway some open-minded independents, said Mike Franc, political analyst for the Heritage Foundation (search).

"A lot of the key attributes of both the Bush doctrine and the Reagan doctrine are very similar," said Franc. The resistance Reagan faced in his fight against communism can also be compared to the criticism aimed at Bush’s War on Terror, he added.

"At the time, (the war against communism) was every bit as controversial as what President Bush is trying to do today. If anything, President Bush has endured even more criticism," he said, adding that both presidents faced challenges and remained committed.

The message from Bush today is "to stay the course, don’t give up, we’re in for a tough political ride right now but we will be proven right by history," just like Reagan, he said.

"I don’t think voters are going to buy it," argued Juan Williams, correspondent for National Public Radio and Fox News Channel contributor.

Williams said Bush falls short on two attributes for which Reagan was credited.

"The number one reason is that George W. Bush is not the ‘Great Communicator,’" referring to Reagan’s moniker, "and he's not a coalition builder." Williams did not agree, either, that Reagan would have necessarily supported a pre-emptive strike on Iraq.

Williams said it is not a matter of whether the Bush administration will politicize the issue, because Republicans have already begun to draw comparisons publicly.

"I haven’t seen people offended or put off, but I have seen people who say it’s a bit of a stretch to say Bush is Reagan," Williams said. "There is a danger of overreaching."

Already, the Club for Growth (search) has rolled out an advertisement playing up the comparison. It is planning to put $500,000 into an ad that juxtaposes a clip from the late president's "Tear down this wall" speech in Berlin with a clip from John Kerry's anti-Vietnam testimony to Congress in 1971. The organization reportedly held off a week on the ad while it retained permission from the Reagan family to use his image.

"The Club for Growth was formed, in part, because of the legacy of Ronald Reagan's beliefs in limited government and tax cuts," said Stephen Moore, Club for Growth president. "We will do all we can to educate the America people about the similarities between Reagan and Bush and the dissimilarities between Reagan and John Kerry."

Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, said it's to Bush's advantage to draw strong distinctions between himself and Democratic opponent Kerry by underscoring his badge as a "Reaganite," both on the War on Terror and strong supply-side economic policies.

"I think it could have an impact if the Bush campaign has the nerve to make it have an impact," he said on "Fox News Sunday" shortly after Reagan's funeral. He pointed to Kerry’s description of the Reagan era as one of "moral darkness" during a 1988 Democratic convention speech.

"No one wants to politicize the death of a recent president. But you know what? The Bush administration should," Kristol said. "In my view they should go out with an ad next week, a very respectful ad about President Reagan, and say, ‘We have a disagreement. George W. Bush is a Reaganite. John Kerry thought the Reagan presidency was a period of moral darkness."

Some question whether such a tactic might draw the ire of the Reagan family, and referenced a eulogy given by Ron Reagan, the late president’s son, before his father's burial.

"Dad was also a deeply, unabashedly religious man," Reagan said at a memorial at the presidential library in Simi Valley. "But he never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians — wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage."

Speculation abounds as to whether Reagan had intended those comments for a specific target. Reagan, a liberal political commentator, has been critical of Bush in the past.

"I know it’s obvious that Ron Reagan doesn’t like Bush. There appears to be no love lost between the current president and the Reagan family," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia (search).

"However, I don’t think there is anything wrong at all with Bush pointing out that there are aspects of his personality and policy that are Reaganite," Sabato said. "Bush is protected in that these are reasonable comparisons."

Sherri Annis, a Republican campaign strategist, said she would like to see the comparisons made, too — as long as it's done by a third party, not the president’s campaign.

"If Bush or the Bush campaign do it themselves, it would appear to be taking advantage of the situation," she said, pointing to the outcry at the perceived politicization of the memorial services for Paul Wellstone, the Democratic senator who died in a plane crash in 2002.

"Just as Sen. Wellstone’s funeral was a disgraceful display of politicking at the expense of the dead, Bush has to steer clear of appearing to make the same mistakes," she said.

"Every pundit and 527 organization," she said, referring to outside partisan groups, "can do what they please," she said. But any move to draw Bush as "Reaganesque," which she believes is a proper characterization, should be done subtly and "left up to peoples’ interpretation."

Bob Borsage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future (search), a liberal Democratic coalition, said any comparisons risk turning off the "old Reagan Democrats" who jumped the fence and supported Reagan in the 1980s.

"'You’re no Reagan,' — that’s certain to be the feeling of the Old Reagan Democrats who have increasingly soured against George Bush," he said. "Of course, it would help our side of the spectrum."