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Hundreds Gather At State GOP Headquarters To Honor Reagan

Posted June 10, 2004

— More than 100 people turned out at the state Republican headquarters Wednesday night to pay their respects at a memorial service for former President Reagan.

"I'm only 22, so I don't remember him as president," Tiffany Gunnoe said. "But I wanted to learn more about him."

Gunnoe drove from Greenville to attend the service. The event featured several speakers who worked with Reagan, as well as a video of Reagan's years in the White House.

As Washington, D.C., began bidding farewell to Reagan, whose body lies in state at the U.S. Capitol, people gathered at the North Carolina GOP headquarters to honor a man who once credited the Tar Heel State for his rise to power.

"Reagan said on many occasions that, had he not won North Carolina in (19)76, he wouldn't have run in 80," said William Peaslee, of the North Carolina GOP. "So, in many respects, North Carolina is the reason Ronald Reagan became the president of the United States."

Thanks to a videotaped speech Nancy Reagan provided to her husband's 1976 primary campaign staff in North Carolina, Reagan's road to the White House may have been sealed.

Reagan had lost a string of primaries leading up to the North Carolina Republican primary. But the speech taped earlier in Florida, which touched on his economic and defense policies, aired around the state during the final few weeks of the campaign.

"It was just a basic conservative speech," said Tom Ellis, who chaired Reagan's 1976 campaign in North Carolina and helped shape Reagan's message. "We kept on plowing, and we won the primary. It absolutely reinvigorated the campaign."

Reagan went on to win 11 primaries, eventually losing the nomination to President Gerald Ford. But supporters said the momentum from his victory here laid the groundwork for his eventual win in the 1980 presidential election.

But Wednesday night was not about politics. It was about respect for a man some personally knew and others, like Peaslee, had only a brief exchange with.

"One of our county chairmen called me and asked me: 'Did you use to live in Erwin, N.C.?" Peaslee said. "I said yes, and he said: ''Well, there's a letter in President Reagan's new book, and it's addressed back to you.'"

About 120 rose from their chairs as they watched Reagan's casket being carried into the Capitol Rotunda on TV. Some wiped away tears.

"I just felt strongly led to come down here to pay my respects to a man who gave so much for our country," said Mark Manning of Raleigh, who brought his wife and 21-month-old son.

Several North Carolina politicians who served in Washington during the Reagan presidency also spoke of America's 40th president.

"When you were in his presence, he made you feel like the most important person in the world," said Bill Cobey, a former congressman and one of six candidates seeking the GOP nomination for governor.

Observers said Reagan's folksy style and genteel conservatism changed the South from a longtime Democratic stronghold to a welcome haven for the GOP.

"What Reagan succeeded in doing was prying apart the New Deal coalition," said Tim Vercellotti, an assistant professor of political science at Elon University, in an interview this week. "He appealed to working classes in the South, folks who had become dissatisfied with the Democratic Party and its response to their everyday problems."

Despite his connections to Hollywood and liberal California, where he was a two-term governor, Southerners could relate to Reagan, Vercellotti said.

"On top of that, he invoked God and patriotism," he said, "and those all struck deep and resonate chords with people in the South."

Reagan "galvanized" Southern conservatives, including Elizabeth Dole, now a U.S. senator, whom he appointed transportation secretary.

"He put Elizabeth Dole on the map," according to Vercellotti.

Jim Martin in 1984 became only the second Republican elected governor in North Carolina in the 20th century.

Reagan's campaigning for Martin and other GOP candidates helped solidify a turning point in the South for Republicans, he said this week.

"He energized the shift, the political realignment of North Carolina and the entire South in a way nobody has before or since," Martin said.

In North Carolina, the effect has resulted in more Republican power in the courts and in the General Assembly, Martin said. In the state House, for instance, Republicans now hold 61 seats to Democrats' 59.

Ellis remembered Reagan as a regular guy.

"He was a thoroughly nice guy and didn't have a high opinion of himself," he said. "He meant a lot to this country."

Martin recalled an occasion when as a congressman in the early 1980s, Reagan personally invited him to the White House just to "chew the fat" with him and then Sens. Howell Heflin, D-Ala., and Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming.

"It was a great evening, just relaxed," Martin said. "There wasn't any time wasted on politics, just enjoying each other's company."

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