Tonight’s GOP Debate: A Noun, a Verb, and Ronald Reagan

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Some dude. Photo: Jerome Delay/AFP/Getty Images

The GOP primary race, like pretty much every GOP primary race for the past two decades, has partly been a contest to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan. You can see it everywhere. In just the past few days, Mitt Romney named his proposed multinational free trade pact the "Reagan Economic Zone" for no discernible reason at all, Newt Gingrich claimed in a press release that his accomplishments as Speaker of the House were inspired by "the success of Ronald Reagan’s policies," and Ron Paul boasted in a TV ad that he was "one of only four Congressmen" to endorse Reagan for president during the 1980 race.

At the same time, for whatever reason, the three primary debates so far have been shockingly short on Reagan — his name has only been uttered by the candidates a combined total of eight times. Maybe they were all just saving up their best Reagan ammo for the fourth debate, which takes place tonight at 8 p.m. at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. If past debates in the hallowed venue are any indication, the candidates will substantially up their efforts: In the two GOP debates held in the Reagan Library during the 2008 race, the candidates said the word "Reagan" 23 and 42 times, respectively.

The task of ingratiating oneself to the Reagan legacy might be a bit tough for the newest face on the stage, Rick Perry. That's because Perry was a Democrat for the first six years of his political career, a time period which happened to overlap with Reagan's presidency. Perry entered the Texas statehouse as a Democrat in 1984 and supported Al Gore's 1988 presidential campaign before switching parties in 1989.

None of that necessarily means that Perry didn't admire or support Reagan then, or that he doesn't idolize him just as much as any other candidate presently. But with Perry galloping away with the GOP nomination, this is one vulnerability that his increasingly desperate opponents will likely try to exploit. What better place to draw the contrast between "real" Reagan devotees and recent converts than inside the Reagan Library, as the Gipper's widowed wife watches from the front row.

But Perry has an easy retort at his disposal. All he has to do is flash a charming smile — like Reagan would have — and observe that he doesn't see anything anti-Reagan about youthful flirtations with the Democrats, since Reagan himself was a Democrat until he switched parties in 1962, at the age of 51.