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American Idols: When Present Greets Past

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By Karin Caifa in Simi Valley, Calif.

The campaign trail has taken us west ahead of two debates here in California, as well as their Super Tuesday primary. We've been spending our nights in the heart of Hollywood, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, fabled to be haunted by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift. According to hotel lore, some guests swear they've seen the reflection of Marilyn staring back at them from a mirror in the lower lobby, and others have felt the presence of Clift pacing the ninth floor at night.

While I've personally avoided paranormal encounters (so far, anyway), the presidential candidates may feel like they're running up against the past this week. Hollywood and Washington are both woven into American history. In the same way that famous "Hollywood" sign in the hills inspires thoughts of glamorous film stars who exist to me only in black-and-white frames, I can't look at the White House and not marvel at those who lived there decades ago. And much like I scratch my head reviewing the scroll of more obscure signers of the Declaration of Independence, I've strolled along Hollywood Boulevard and wondered just who Stuart Erwin was, and what he did to get that star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame I'm standing on.

See, in Hollywood there are fleeting stars, and there are lasting icons. The same goes for Washington. There have been presidents who have simply avoided recession or war, kept the country on an even keel for their four-year terms, and gone home quietly at the end. And then there are those who leave looming legacies, their names invoked by political successors for generations.

The remaining Republicans on stage here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library tonight are in the shadow of one of those oft-metioned Washington icons. Taking a walk around the library grounds today, admiring the stunning valley vista, I came across a piece of the Berlin Wall, dismantled starting in 1989. For his instrumental role in bringing that divider down, and for various other achievements, Ronald Reagan evolved from Hollywood star to Republican icon in the eyes of these candidates vying for the White House.

For Rudy Giuliani, the trip up this picturesque hill was a pilgrimage of sorts, his final stop on the trail. Giuliani announced the close of his presidential campaign here earlier today. A flawed primary strategy culminated in a disappointing loss in Florida last night. Giuliani may have become a star as mayor of New York City, but for now he'll have to abandon ambitions of becoming a Washington icon, unless, of course, he becomes a VP candidate. 

"President Reagan's leadership remains an inspiration to both John McCain and myself," Giuliani said as he endorsed his friend John McCain here hours before tonight's debate. "Today I am officially announcing my withdrawal as a candidate for president of the United States."

"He is an American hero," Giuliani continued. "And America could use heroes in the White House."

Whether McCain will go from Giuliani's "hero" to a Reagan-esque Republican icon, that's still for the voters to decide. But the Democrats have an icon playing in their race, too. It's funny, in two separate instances out on the trail -- once in New Hampshire and once in South Carolina --  I've encountered men in their 50s and 60s, both Obama supporters. They both told me that Obama reminded them of John F. Kennedy. That notion was confirmed over the weekend, when JFK's daughter Caroline penned a New York Times op-ed piece in support of the young senator from Illinois titled, "A President Like My Father." Obama also received the backing of JFK's brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy, at a rally on Monday.

JFK comparisons came up a lot when Bill Clinton ran for his first term in 1992 and, of course, now we have his wife taking her shot at the White House. So in two campaigns that have talked so much about change, there's a lot of old mixed in with the new. And like a director remaking a Hollywood classic (or perhaps a guest in my "haunted" hotel) the candidates from both parties have encountered a little bit of the past in their present this week.

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