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Analysts: Reagan Death Could Affect US Election - 2004-06-09


The U.S. presidential election campaign has effectively ground to a halt as Americans bid farewell to former President Ronald Reagan.

With the Bush and Kerry campaigns on hold this week out of respect for Ronald Reagan, both candidates have had time to reflect on the legacy of the 40th U.S. president.

President Bush spoke about it to reporters covering the G-8 Summit in Georgia. "Ronald Reagan will go down in history as a great American president because he had a core set of principles from which he would not deviate. He understood that a leader is a person who sets clear goals and makes decisions based upon principles that are etched in his soul," he said.

Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry paid his respects in person at the Reagan Library in California. In an earlier statement, Senator Kerry said that even when Mr. Reagan was breaking Democratic hearts in the 1980s, he did so in the spirit of honest and open debate.

"President Reagan's belief in America was infectious. And because of the way he led, he taught us there was a difference between strong beliefs and bitter partisanship," he said.

Some political analysts are wondering what impact, if any, Mr. Reagan's passing and the reflections on his legacy might have on this year's presidential contest.

"Never before has a great president died in the midst of a tightly contested campaign," said American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman. "Presidents have died previously during election years, but not tightly contested ones like this one," he said.

Professor Lichtman says the generally positive media coverage of Ronald Reagan's presidency this week could give President Bush a political boost at a time when the president's public approval ratings have been sinking.

"I think it benefits George Bush in two ways. Number one, he is the sitting president and as the sitting president, he will be front and center in the funeral ceremony," he said. "John Kerry will be spectator. Secondly, to the extent that the celebration of Ronald Reagan is a celebration of America's conservative heritage, the natural legatee (heir) of that is not John Kerry, but is George Bush.

But other experts are not so sure. "George W. Bush has made no secret that he wished to the be the heir of Ronald Reagan," said David Gergen, a White House aide for four presidents including Ronald Reagan. "And so I think inevitably, in that sense, he benefits from it. But, the issue becomes as well, does Reagan suddenly seem larger than life and diminish both Kerry and Bush in some way? And I do not know the answer to that question."

Some Democrats worry that the unexpected break in campaigning could slow Senator Kerry's momentum in the polls. But most experts predict that all the attention being paid to the Reagan legacy now will eventually recede into the background as voters resume their focus on Iraq and the domestic economy.

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