As Republicans mark the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth today, a nostalgic GOP confronts a nagging question: Can the party of the former president and California governor hope to produce future leaders who can meet his iconic political gold standard?
"Reagan is still the lodestar for Republicans," said Sacramento political consultant Sal Russo, a University of California at Berkeley student activist in 1964 when he was tapped to be a driver, and later a special assistant, to Reagan when he was California's governor from 1967 to 1975. "You can't have a conversation about Republican politics without bringing him up."
Russo — now a leading force behind the Tea Party Express, which is creating a populist firestorm in GOP politics — said Reagan's legacy provides a template for Republicans who hope to gain ground, and even win back the White House, in 2012.
"Reagan understood political reality, and his positions evolved — and there's nothing wrong with that," Russo said. "Both political parties have a tendency to get a little insular." Moving beyond isolation, he said, is "what Reagan did — both in California and the rest of the country."
Californians who worked alongside him and journalists who covered him say the life of America's 40th president and his remarkable political career hold key lessons for the state he governed and the party he led.
But it presents challenges: With the 2012 presidential elections looming, the question of what constitutes "post-Reaganism" — and who is likely to best represent it — is daunting for the Republican Party on the brink of one of its most wide-open presidential primaries in decades.
Lacking an obvious front-runner or even a candidate who is assumed to be first in line for the nomination, party donors and leaders probably will gravitate toward a candidate who can conjure some of the winning Reagan magic — critical against Democratic President Barack Obama.
But those who have studied Reagan say he's a tough act to follow — especially when a weak economy and extraordinary political vitriol have roiled the political landscape.
"It's one thing to talk about Reagan, but what Reagan did was more practical and mainstream than what most people remember," said journalist Lou Cannon, the Reagan biographer who has penned five books on the former president, who died in 2004 .
As governor, Reagan raised taxes in California, while as president, "Reagan's greatest legacy is that he started a reduction of nuclear armaments with (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev," said Cannon.
"Can you imagine a Republican Party nominating someone who was ready to raise taxes and wanted that reduction? That person wouldn't get out of the Iowa primary," he said.
For a new generation of Republicans, Reagan remains the role model not only as "the great communicator" but also as "the great educator," said Republican attorney and veteran party strategist Ken Khachigian, who served as Reagan's chief speechwriter during the presidential campaigns of 1980 and 1984 .
"He laid down a set of principles, not just as president but even before that — principles that define the Republican Party: a strong America, a strong defense, less government regulation, reasonable or lower taxation," said Khachigian.
But his greatest strength was his presentation of ideas, Khachigian said. "He knew how to create word pictures and paint portraits in people's minds of what he was trying to tell them," Khachigian said, like the "shining city on the hill" — the phrase Reagan used to describe what he called America's special place in the world.
Reagan Energy Secretary John Herrington, a former chairman of the California GOP, said presidential candidates hoping to follow in Reagan's footsteps must learn the lesson of authenticity.
"He was the same guy in private as in public," said Herrington, who met Reagan in June 1968 when he began work as an advance man for the then-governor's first campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.
Reagan "tapped into a lot of principles that the rank and file believed in, and he was able to bring pride back to the office," said Herrington. "As a leader, he made you proud."
Insiders say it is still unclear who among the current crop of GOP hopefuls can easily assume that mantle.