Was Newt Gingrich really all that close to Ronald Reagan?

In GOP debates, Newt Gingrich has mentioned Ronald Reagan more than all the other candidates combined. A pro-Romney ad accuses the ex-speaker of exaggerating his relationship.

Matt Rourke/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich walks to a stage for a forum at Univision Network Studios, Wednesday, in Doral, Fla.

Does Newt Gingrich have a Ronald Reagan problem? Specifically, by wrapping himself in the Gipper’s mantle, is the ex-speaker risking criticism that’s he’s misrepresenting the past?

There’s no doubt that Mr. Gingrich is the GOP candidate who’s been most aggressive about portraying himself as a “Reagan conservative” (his words). He mentioned the late president just four words into his first answer in Monday night’s debate, as New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver notes.

Over the course of the GOP debating schedule, Gingrich has mentioned Mr. Reagan 55 times, according to Silver. That’s more than the rest of the Republican field, combined.

It’s easy to see why Gingrich would do this. It’s a way of painting his past service in Congress in a rosy glow. Reagan remains a beloved icon to conservatives, who make up the bulk of the pro-Gingrich vote. Why shouldn’t Gingrich point out that they worked together and shared some policy beliefs?

Well, for one thing, it opens the door for Mitt Romney to try and portray Gingrich as a waterboy who’s misunderestimating how well he knew the captain of the football team. In Monday’s debate, Romney noted that the word “Gingrich” appears once in Reagan’s diaries. Even that once is a negative, as it notes that Newt at the time is opposing some Reagan defense policies.

“From debates, you’d think that Newt Gingrich was Ronald Reagan’s vice president. Gingrich exaggerates,” says an ad paid for the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future that’s currently running in Florida.

More stingingly, the noted neo-con and ex-Reagan State Department official Elliott Abrams penned a piece posted Wednesday at National Review Online that calls Gingrich’s claims of fellowship with Reagan “misleading at best,” particularly in regards to foreign policy.

Those were years when Democrats in Congress fought bitterly with the Reagan White House over the latter’s efforts to halt Soviet adventurism in the Third World. Remember the Nicaraguan Contras? Mr. Abrams does, and he does not remember Gingrich helping much as Reagan fought to maintain Contras funding.

“Mr. Gingrich voted with the president regularly, but equally often spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat Communism. Gingrich was voluble and certain in predicting that Reagan ‘s policies would fail, and in all of this he was dead wrong,” Abrams writes.

(Yes, yes, we remember Iran-Contra too – but that’s not what we’re talking about at the moment.)

Abrams resurrects a particularly unfortunate (for Gingrich) quote from 1985, in which the then-congressman called a looming meeting between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”

Now, whether GOP primary voters will care about this tiff over the long-ago is something else entirely. It’s certainly not cooling their enthusiasm for Gingrich at the moment: according to Gallup, Gingrich has erased Romney’s 23-point national lead among Republicans in one week.

That’s not a swing in support. It’s a stampede.

“The two candidates are now essentially tied,” writes Gallup editor Frank Newport.

Plus, Gingrich has a pretty big hammer of his own to swing at Romney. Or rather, the pro-Gingrich "super PAC" Winning Our Future does. This organization is spending $6 million to run an ad that depicts Romney as a moderate and progressive. Among other things, the ad asserts “Mitt Romney invented government-run health care.”

Ouch. That’s got to worry the Romney campaign.

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