Is Newt Gingrich killing Mitt Romney with kindness?

Newt Gingrich is not famous for his forbearance, but he's treating Mitt Romney, his top competition for the GOP presidential nomination, like an old pal. That might be a smart move.  

Seth Wenig/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaks at a news conference in New York Monday.

Is the famously combative Newt Gingrich trying to kill Mitt Romney with kindness?

That’s how it looked on “The Kudlow Report” on CNBC Tuesday night, when the former House speaker heaped praise on the former governor of Massachusetts, his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination. True, Mr. Gingrich also patted Mr. Romney on the head a little bit in claiming that he “helped Mitt Romney get rich” with business-friendly legislation back in the '80s and '90s.

“He should be thanking me because I did the macroeconomic things necessary to make his career possible,” Gingrich said.

But Gingrich also didn’t hesitate to gush about what a great guy Romney is. When asked whether Romney could beat him in the primaries, Gingrich turned on the charm.

“Look, I think Mitt Romney's a very smart man,” Gingrich said. “I think any Republican could be proud to have him as their nominee, and I think he'd be very formidable against Obama

“I happen to think I would be a better candidate than Mitt, but that's, I mean, we are, after all, competing here,” Gingrich continued. “But I'm not going to say anything negative about him. I think he's a terrific person.”

Gingrich’s tactic of going against type may be a smart move. He’s leading in polls nationally and in most early nominating states. There are many reasons for Gingrich to be surging – the collapse of other rivals, his comfort in discussing policy issues on the debate stage, his knowledge of the ins and outs of Washington, his journey from two failed marriages to an apparently happy personal life. But likeability has always been an issue for Gingrich, and by heaping praise on his competitors, he’s softening the edges.

Not that his inner pugilist is always in check. He lets the fighter in him come out in attacks on debate moderators: That’s a dumb question! Not enough time to respond! He’s playing to the GOP base, which shares no love for the mainstream media.

Gingrich is, in short, following the GOP’s “11th  Commandment,” popularized by Ronald Reagan in the '60s: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.

Other candidates, meanwhile, are forgetting they ever heard that maxim and are going at Gingrich with guns blazing. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who’s also making a strong play for the crucial first contest in Iowa, has gone up with the first attack ad of the cycle, targeting Gingrich. And Romney, who has stayed above the fray, has also signaled that he’s going to start taking on Gingrich more directly.

“We’re going to make sure that the differences in our experience and our perspective and our views on issues are well-aired and people can make a choice,” Romney said Tuesday evening on Fox.

Romney continued:  “Speaker Gingrich is a friend, I respect him, but we have very different life experiences and if the American people believe that what we need is someone who spent the last 40 years or so in Washington, D.C., working as an insider, why he’s the right guy.”

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