The fracas isn't just about whether the former House speaker really has a lot in common with President Reagan or not. It's also about the same question that has dogged Mr. Gingrich's top rival, Mitt Romney: Is he's enough of a true conservative to be the party's standard-bearer against President Obama this fall?
Gingrich is clinging closer to the Reagan mantle ahead of a high-stakes primary vote in Florida, even as conservative critics have mounted a growing effort to discredit Gingrich on that front. The influential Drudge Report website loaded its home page Thursday with links to comments in which Gingrich, during the 1980s, publicly parted company from Reagan.
That comes as conservative columnist Ann Coulter ramped up her message that Gingrich is less electable than former Massachusetts Governor Romney. Her latest column is titled, “Re-elect Obama, Vote Newt!”
Tom DeLay, who worked closely with Gingrich as a representative during the 1990s, has piled on. “He’s not really a conservative. I mean, he’ll tell you what you want to hear. He has an uncanny ability, sort of like Clinton, to feel your pain and know his audience and speak to his audience and fire them up. But when he was speaker, he was erratic, undisciplined," Mr. DeLay said in a radio interview with KTRH in Houston.
That comment, in turn, echoed a point made by another prominent conservative, the American Spectator's R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., in a piece titled, “William Jefferson Gingrich.” Mr. Tyrrell writes that "Gingrich is conservatism’s Bill Clinton, but without the charm," and that the two politicians are both “1960s generation self-promoters."
Speaking in Mount Dora, Fla., Thursday, Gingrich painted his critics as part of a "Republican establishment" allied with Wall Street. Romney, with his personal and campaign finances tied to Wall Street, came in for direct criticism. Although Gingrich didn't use Romney's name, he said Florida voters are not "too stupid" to connect the dots – speaking of his opponent who invested in Goldman Sachs and has accounts in the Cayman Islands.
To many conservative voters, including those in the tea party movement, an antiestablishment message resonates – both directed against Republicans as well as Mr. Obama. Gingrich called himself a "citizen conservative."
What remains to be seen is whether he can continue to successfully woo Florida voters amid all the criticism and attack ads aimed against him.
Florida is a potentially pivotal state in the Republican primary process. If Gingrich were to win there, it would be a major upset for Romney, who has long led in polls there and saw Florida as a "firewall" in his effort to become the nominee.
For Gingrich, the appeal of linking himself to Reagan is obvious. Reagan enjoys immense and enduring popularity within the party, and Gingrich can (and does) point out that he was there, serving in the House of Representatives, during the Reagan revolution.
It also allows a candidate known for a no-holds-barred style to move closer, in voters minds, to the sunny image of the president who offered "morning in America" after the difficult 1970s.
Some weeks ago, Gingrich talked of running a "relentlessly positive" campaign. Now, even as he delivers his own share of attacks on rivals, he hopes the Reagan connection will endure.