- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

BUFFALO, N.Y. As the defining day of his campaign comes closer, Sen. John McCain is drawing the mantle of Ronald Reagan ever tighter around his shoulders.

"I am a proud Reagan conservative," Mr. McCain told a crowd in Portland, Maine, Saturday, a common theme in his recent speeches. "No one has any doubt about that."

"I am a proud Reagan conservative," he repeated a few hours later in Rochester, N.Y., "but I say to others just as Ronald Reagan did, join us."

The Arizona senator has made Mr. Reagan an important element in his speeches ever since his surprise victory in Michigan on Feb. 22. Although Mr. McCain won the Republican primary, he did so largely without Republican voters. Only half of those who voted in Michigan were Republicans and most of them voted for Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Mr. McCain is "a Western conservative like Reagan" and "a fiscal conservative," McCain consultant Mike Murphy said, explaining the former president's increasing prominence in the campaign rhetoric. "We're trying to reassure the base."

In recent days, Mr. McCain has not only invoked Mr. Reagan's name repeatedly, but he has begun to crib directly from the Gipper's speech book.

In New York state, for example, he paraphrased Mr. Reagan's famous speech at the Berlin Wall when discussing his fight against New York Gov. George E. Pataki and other Republican leaders who were trying to keep him off the primary ballot.

Mr. Reagan once called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." Mr. McCain imitating Mr. Reagan's famous speaking style called on "Comrade Pataki" to "let me on that ballot."

"We were able to tear down the last vestige of communism I know," Mr. McCain told voters at a rally in New York City on Friday.

Mr. McCain has also begun to borrow some of the sunny themes that were a trademark of Mr. Reagan's campaigns in 1980 and 1984 themes such as his famous "morning in America" ad campaign.

"A new day is coming in politics and America," Mr. McCain said at a rally in Boston on Saturday.

Aides paint a mixed picture of Mr. McCain's tactic, admitting on one hand that it is a deliberate move to reach out to Republicans, but saying on the other that it is merely a natural outgrowth of Mr. McCain's admiration for the former president.

"Ronald Reagan had a lot to do with John in his early years," when he first ran for Congress from Arizona, media consultant Greg Stevens said.

The campaign hopes to tie the image of Mr. McCain firmly with that of Mr. Reagan, who ran as an outsider in both 1976 and 1980 and eventually prevailed over the establishment of the party.

"Ronald Reagan appealed to [the people], he didn't have anybody in Washington," Mr. Stevens said. "He spoke for the people."

Mr. McCain said he mentions Mr. Reagan "not because I agree with everything he did, but because I thought he restored the confidence in young Americans and had a vision for what America is in the world that won the Cold War."

It's not clear, however, how Mr. Reagan would like being adopted by the McCain campaign. Mr. Reagan championed the notion of the "11th commandment," his rule that Republicans should not publicly attack one another. Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush have been locked in a nasty verbal battle since the South Carolina campaign in February.

Mr. Reagan might also wonder at Mr. McCain's attacks on religious leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, whom he accuses of "intolerance" and of leading the party in the wrong direction. While Mr. Reagan himself never strongly identified himself as a religious conservative, he was comfortable reaching out to those voters. Both Mr. Falwell and Mr. Robertson were political allies of Mr. Reagan during his presidency.

Mr. Reagan now has Alzheimer's disease and is too ill to speak for himself on the matter. His wife, Nancy, has declined to endorse either candidate, citing the 11th commandment.

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