Biographer: When Reagan Skipped Iowa Debate in 1980 ‘It Was Not a Similar Situation At All’

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Ronald Reagan’s biographer and author of the new book, Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan, Craig Shirley tells Breitbart News that when Ronald Reagan skipped an Iowa debate of Republican presidential candidates in 1980 “it was not a similar situation at all.”

Bloomberg News reported on a long-forgotten 1980 debate in an article today:

Trump isn’t the first top-tier presidential candidate to skip a debate. Ronald Reagan did not attend a Republican debate ahead of the 1980 Iowa caucuses, which he lost to George H.W. Bush. Reagan went on to the win the nomination and the presidency.

“As of 1980, Reagan had a firm grip on the cause of intellectual conservatism in America,” Shirley says.

“Reagan had been a widely known conservative for years. Reagan had been a successful governor and then after that a responsible public commentator,” Shirley adds.

“The only reason Bush, Connally, and others challenged Reagan for the 1980 nomination was because they thought he was too old. Bush jogged constantly for the benefit of the press in order to draw a contrast. Bush’s campaign slogans were ‘Up for the 80’s’ and ‘A President We Won’t Have To Train.’ Both were mocked as sounding like a soda pop slogan and ‘A President We Won’t Have To Potty Train’ quickly became slogans of derision,” the Reagan biographer notes.

“Reagan was far and away the frontrunner—or so his campaign thought—so he was advised to skip the Des Moines Register debate. He took the bad advice and it became an issue just days before the caucuses and Reagan as a result lost narrowly to George Bush. As I recall, some 50 percent of caucus goers disapproved of Reagan missing the debate,” Shirley adds.

Though Reagan had firmly established his conservative credentials in 1980, in contrast to Trump, who was criticized by National Review last week in an unprecedented special edition of the magazine as a candidate who lacks a consistent conservative political philosophy, there is at least one similarity between the skipped debates separated by 36 years. Nationally, Trump leads the field by a wide margin, just as Reagan did in 1980.

Reagan was the national front runner in 1980, as Gallup reported:

Reagan entered the 1980 GOP presidential nomination contest as the clear front-runner, and dominated national GOP preference polls throughout 1979. But he suffered a narrow defeat to former CIA Director George H.W. Bush in Iowa, and Bush surged in the polls as a result. Immediately following Iowa, Bush and Reagan were tied. Bush’s surge did not last, however, and within a week, Reagan had regained a slim national lead of seven points. After winning the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 26, Reagan regained his dominant positioning over the rest of the GOP field.

But in Iowa, Reagan was far behind George H.W. Bush throughout 1979 as two “Ames Straw Polls” conducted in May and October demonstrated.

Whether it was because he was behind in Iowa or wanted to “stay above the fray” as consultant John Sears advised, Reagan skipped the January 1980 debate, as the Des Moines Register reported:

The idea for The Des Moines Register’s presidential debates developed from a breakfast discussion [in 1980] between Register Editor James P. Gannon and his wife, Joan. Pursuing the idea, Gannon arranged debates for both parties. The six GOP candidates were Phil Crane, Howard Baker, John Connally, Robert Dole, George Bush and John Anderson. A seventh candidate, Ronald Reagan, turned down the offer to debate.

“Fortunately, there was five weeks between Iowa and New Hampshire in those days, so Reagan was able to recover. But it wasn’t because of some female reporter that he ducked the debate or a fight with a media outlet,” Shirley concludes.


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