Ronald Reagan Who?

The Gipper conspicuously absent from the Republican Convention so far.

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Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan stands before a cheering Republican National Convention in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena on July 17, 1980.

TAMPA--Remember Ronald Reagan? He was the president who was lionized by the Republican Party for three decades and praised lavishly by the 2012 GOP presidential candidates only a few months ago.

But so far, Reagan and his legacy have not played a major role this week at the Republican National Convention. Republican strategists say the party is shifting to a new generation of leaders, such as Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice-presidential nominee who addresses the convention Wednesday night, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who also speaks in prime time Wednesday, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was the keynote speaker Tuesday night.

Under this scenario, presidential nominee Mitt Romney is a transitional figure, a bridge between the Reagan-oriented GOP of the past and the evolving conservative party of the future, Republican strategists say.

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Reagan, who was president from 1981-89, has barely been mentioned by the major convention speakers so far. This is expected to change during the final two days of the gathering. Condoleezza Rice, who served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush, is expected to talk about Reagan's contributions to ending the Cold War during her speech Wednesday night. And convention planners may air a video Thursday about Reagan's legacy, featuring his widow Nancy, according to GOP sources in Tampa.

Frank Donatelli, who was Reagan's political director at the White House, told me that Reagan retains a strong hold on the imagination of conservatives, young and old.

A key ingredient in Reagan's legacy, Donatelli says, is that he was successful in so many ways, from improving the economy to helping to end the Cold War to boosting conservatism in the United States.

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Reagan had the ability to inspire people and get them to trust him even if they disagreed with his specific policies, Donatelli says. And Reagan is fondly remembered as a likable figure who lifted the country's spirits with his sunny optimism, his "belief in America as a special place," and his promotion of the United States as a beacon of freedom for the world, says Donatelli, who is now chairman of the GOPAC conservative political action committee.

But it's clear that the GOP is looking to the future now, 32 years after Reagan was first elected president. And while the long-time conservative icon remains popular within the GOP, both the world and the nation have changed dramatically since he was in office, and consequently his party is looking to update "Reaganism." There is no longer a Soviet Union, which was one of Reagan's main focal points as he sought to defeat Communism around the globe. Partisan lines have hardened in Washington, and the Republican party is zeroing in ever more aggressively on the federal deficit, whch soared during the Reagan years. 

Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at and on Facebook and Twitter.