Even though Ronald Reagan lost the 1976 Republican nomination to President Gerald Ford, the primary race became a defining set of events that brought the former California governor to the national forefront and pushed the Republican Party to its current conservatism, author and political activist Craig Shirley told a Lawrence crowd Thursday.
"Let's be clear. Without North Carolina, he would have withdrawn from the race and faded into political oblivion," Shirley said of the fifth primary in 1976 and first in a string that Reagan won while his campaign was more than $2 million in debt.
As president of a Washington government affairs firm, Shirley spoke to a crowd of more than 100 Thursday at the Dole Institute of Politics as part of the summer lecture series.
His book "Reagan's Revolution" was published earlier this year, and in it Shirley depicts the bitter campaign that ended Aug. 19, 1976, at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo., with the incumbent Ford accepting the nomination and appointing Kansan Bob Dole as his running mate.
Even though he was defeated, Reagan again stole the limelight, after Ford accepted the nomination, with a convention speech that inspired a standing ovation.
Shirley said Thursday that if Reagan never gained the popularity in 1976 when he fought Ford, then what became his presidential legacy and perhaps the defeat of the Soviet Union may not have ever happened.
"The Republican Party would have died and been replaced by a third party," Shirley said.
In response to a question about what Reagan would think about today's world events, Shirley said Reagan probably would be glad George W. Bush is president, but he was unsure whether Reagan would have decided to send troops to Iraq.
"I'm sure he would have sent them to Afghanistan, but I'm not sure about Iraq," he said.
Shirley also talked about how Reagan suggested Dole to Ford from a list of five potential vice presidential candidates when the two met on the final day of the convention.
Nelson Krueger, of Lawrence, said Shirley's speech brought memories for him, a former Dole staffer and Reagan appointee in the Labor Department.
"We sent out 2,100 letters that morning to delegates suggesting Bob Dole as vice president, and then it came true that night in Kansas City," Krueger said.