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In this Aug. 23, 2023 file photo, Republican presidential candidates listen to a prayer before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel. From left, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former vice-president Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.Morry Gash/The Associated Press

Ronald and Nancy Reagan are buried on a California hilltop, their gravesite on the grounds of a library dedicated to keeping alive the legacy of the 40th U.S. president.

Mr. Reagan has long been the standard-bearer for modern American conservatism. Thirty-four years after he left office, more than 40 per cent of those who lean Republican still call him the best recent president.

But as the candidates for the party’s presidential nomination prepare to arrive at the library on Wednesday for a second primary debate, that legacy has never been more in jeopardy.

Last month, a Pew Research Center poll found that nearly as many conservatives now see Donald Trump as their most favoured recent president.

The debate, of course, will provide a stage for challengers to decry Mr. Trump’s leadership and political priorities. The very existence of the debate at the Reagan library is testament to the continued attempts to revive the more measured conservatism of past decades. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, which runs the library, sought to host the event in part to reassert Mr. Reagan’s legacy.

“There’s a lot of what Ronald Reagan stood for that could be bolstered again,” said Melissa Giller, the foundation’s chief marketing office. The need for civility, she said, “is a big one.” She invoked Mr. Reagan’s so-called 11th commandment: “Thou shall not speak ill of another Republican.”

That’s not a command that has ever held sway over Mr. Trump, the master of the sneering gibe.

Analysis: Trump seeks to appeal to unlikely Republican voters

And the debate, rather than bend the arc of the Republican Party back toward Mr. Reagan, seems likely only to affirm the party’s lurch toward the isolationist, raucous politics of Mr. Trump.

The fact that Mr. Trump will not attend only underscores his confidence, with a polling lead so great he sees little risk in skipping a high-profile event. He will instead be in Michigan, where auto workers are on strike.

Indeed, he has reason to think he need not even be in California, which could prove pivotal to his bid to once again represent Republicans in a presidential race.

California sends 169 delegates to the Republican National Convention, more than any other state. In years past, those delegates were apportioned to candidates based on their performance in individual electoral districts.

This summer, however, the state’s Republicans changed their own rules. Now, all delegates will be awarded to any candidate who can secure half the vote. Barring a dramatic shift, Mr. Trump is the only candidate poised to profit from that change.

The state’s Republican primary voting day has also been moved forward this primary cycle to March 5, 2024, or Super Tuesday.

“If Trump wins California by over 50 per cent and wins all of those delegates outright, the primary is probably all but over at that point,” said Tim Lineberger, a political consultant in the state who worked with Mr. Trump’s campaign in 2016.

Seven years later, Mr. Trump “has pretty much completed the project of taking over,” said Michael D’Antonio, a biographer of the 45th president. “He has redefined what it means to be a Republican, in the way that Reagan once seemed to.”

It’s a shift that continues to sit uneasily with many party elders. The Reagan presidential library, for example, is situated in Ventura County, where the local GOP leadership is openly critical of Mr. Trump.

“It’s time to move on. We need a candidate who will present a positive, optimistic message,” Joe Piechowski, executive director of the Ventura GOP, said on a recent day over lunch at the library. Nearby stood a piece of the Berlin Wall, a memorial to Mr. Reagan’s efforts to fracture the Iron Curtain.

“You need a bundle of votes from the middle,” added John Andersen, who chairs the county’s Republicans. “And if you’re not speaking to the middle, it isn’t going to happen.”

It wasn’t long ago that California was seen as pivotal to defeating Mr. Trump. It once seemed possible that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis could challenge for the Republican nomination by showing strength in blue states.

“The initial strength DeSantis had shown was with what I would call soft Republicans,” particularly white, college-educated voters under the age of 55. “And there’s just a ton of them in California,” said John Thomas, a Republican strategist. Indeed, polling late last year showed Mr. DeSantis “was actually somewhat competitive in California,” he said.

Much has changed since then, including Mr. Trump’s skill in turning dozens of criminal indictments to his own advantage.

“He’s become like a martyr, mythical-like figure within the party,” Mr. Thomas said. “The other candidates are not willing to admit it, but the only way for them to win is directly through Donald Trump.”

But the loyalties of the party faithful to Mr. Trump have proven unshakable.

“Republicans love Donald Trump,” said Matthew Continetti, the director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute who is author of The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.

It’s not merely an affection for his bombastic style. Mr. Trump has also made himself the modern avatar of a different kind of conservatism, one that promotes a more hostile approach to immigration, a narrower role for the United States in world affairs and a more combative posture toward rivals such as China.

Once, such an ideology was the preserve of conservative provocateurs such as Pat Buchanan. With Mr. Trump, it is no longer the fringe. It is the party’s mainstream, and he remains its most trusted exponent.

Holding a debate a few steps from Ronald Reagan’s grave is unlikely to change that.

“Reagan’s election is closer to the end of World War Two than it is to today,” said Mr. Continetti. Not only has the world fundamentally changed since then but so, too, has the Republican Party.

“An explicitly anti-Trump politics really doesn’t have anywhere to go in today’s GOP,” he said.

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