WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Their first gathering, in 1998, was held in Matthew Haapoja's two-bedroom apartment, known as the "Reagan Ballroom." Every February since, about 100 people have joined him to celebrate Ronald Reagan's birthday. Wearing their Reagan T-shirts or political buttons, they replay tapes of his speeches or watch his movies.
But for all their devotion to the 40th president, most of the guests are so young that they remember little about Reagan and his administration - just that he was the man their parents called "the president."
"We did everything that we could do to learn about Ronald Reagan," said Eric Hoplin, 25, chairman of the College Republicans National Committee in Washington. "That was our leader. That was our hero."
Committed to ideology
With the death of Reagan, thousands of these young people are rallying around his image - not just to mourn him, but to signal that their generation of young Republicans has coalesced into a focused movement. Led by three prominent conservative groups, they say they are committed to carrying on the ideology of the man who was inaugurated when many of them were infants.
Even the platform of the committee mirrors Reagan's ideology. "The message that College Republicans carry is one of optimism," said Alison Aikele, 20, the group's communications director. "President Reagan has kind of made it cool to be a conservative again."
As they educated themselves about Reagan, many of them became niche historians, immersing themselves in books and joining various conservative youth groups. Many say they became aware of Reagan because of their parents or older siblings.
"If I wanted to watch cartoons, my dad was watching Ronald Reagan," said Brandt Squires, 22, a former intern for Sen. Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican. "And I wouldn't dare change the channel."
Squires said that with the exception of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, his father was never as interested in politics as he was during Reagan's two terms. "Now, I don't see him come home and immediately want to know what George Bush did that day," he said.
Alyssa Beaver, 20, a member of the University of Pennsylvania College Republicans, said that although she was "predisposed toward liking Reagan," her parents nurtured her interest in the former president, whose picture hung in her dorm room last year.
Other young Republicans say that even today their parents promote Reagan's legacy. One is Haapoja, 33, who holds the parties at his home in Minneapolis every year on the Friday or Saturday closest to Feb. 6, Reagan's birthday.
"My mother gives me some type of Reagan book for every birthday and every Christmas," he said in a telephone interview, adding that he has read about 15.
Yet parents wield only so much influence over their children, and Reagan's presence in the hearts of these young people owes much to the rise of their political organizations.
Three of the most prominent conservative youth groups in the United States retain former Reagan administration staff members in leadership positions, including Morton C. Blackwell, the special assistant to the president in his first term. Blackwell is the president of the Leadership Institute, a nonprofit educational institution that identifies itself on its Web site as nonpartisan while describing itself as "the premier training ground for tomorrow's conservative leaders."
Frank Donatelli, Reagan's deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison at the White House, sits on the board of the Young America's Foundation, an organization that acquired the Reagan ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1998.
Of course, some young people required little encouragement to embrace Reagan. "He was our icon that we had to look to in the eight long years of Bill Clinton, when we were becoming politically aware," said Hoplin, the head of the college Republican committee.
Hoplin said he had an early, if superficial, interest in the 40th president, in the fifth grade. "I was the class expert on the Reagan presidency," he said.
Haapoja recalled trying to persuade his classmates to vote for Reagan in a Weekly Reader poll for students. "I remember telling everyone, 'You've got to vote for Reagan,'" he said.
Hoplin said Reagan was accessible to elementary students because of the simple language of his speeches and the sincerity of his tone. He said that almost any audience could glean something from a Reagan speech, "whether it was a 10-year-old child or the most politically sophisticated American."
Ron Robinson, president of the Young America's Foundation, said, "I think the words that he used did have a way to break through to audiences that would otherwise not be listening to sophisticated political debate."
But few in this generation of young Republicans were in those audiences.
"He's no different, in that sense, from Eisenhower or Truman - or Joe McCarthy, for that matter," said Francis G. Couvares, a professor who teaches 20th-century history at Amherst College. "He's a name from the past."