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GOP Candidates Wrangle Over Reagan's Legacy

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GOP Candidates Wrangle Over Reagan's Legacy

Presidential Race

GOP Candidates Wrangle Over Reagan's Legacy

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As he campaigns for the Republican nomination, Newt Gingrich almost always works the name of Ronald Reagan into his speeches. In fact, Gingrich's name dropping is so common that it's being criticized by Mitt Romney and the superPAC that backs him.

NPR's Brian Naylor has that story.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Sometimes, Gingrich invokes the name of Ronald Reagan to associate himself with the policies of the former president, as he did in this speech in St. Petersburg earlier this week.

NEWT GINGRICH: When I worked with President Reagan, we adopted a lower taxed, less regulation, more American energy policy and it led to 16 million new jobs.

NAYLOR: Sometimes, he invokes Reagan's name as an inspiration, as he did a few days later in central Florida.

GINGRICH: Because I was involved in that period and because I lived through it, I will confess to you, I am channeling Ronald Reagan in 1975, '76 and I'm channeling the way that he used the Panama Canal and the fact that he didn't back down. He lost five straight primaries and he didn't quit for a day.

NAYLOR: Sometimes, Gingrich claims to be Reagan's political heir.

GINGRICH: In 1995, at the Goldwater Institute, Nancy Reagan said that Ronald Reagan's torch had been passed to me as speaker of the House and that I was carrying out the values he believed in.

NAYLOR: And he's more or less right. Here's what the former first lady actually said after Republicans won a majority in the House and elected Gingrich speaker following the 1994 elections.

NANCY REAGAN: Barry Goldwater handed the torch to Ronnie and, in turn, Ronnie turned that torch over to Newt and the Republican members of Congress to keep that dream alive.

NAYLOR: And, in fact, Gingrich has been endorsed by Michael Reagan, the president's son, who said Gingrich exemplifies the conservative principles his father championed. But Gingrich's relationship with Ronald Reagan was a bit more complicated. He was a back bencher in Congress when Reagan was in the White House and he wasn't always supportive of the then president, writing in the National Review online, former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams recalls Gingrich criticizing Reagan's policy in Afghanistan, saying it was marked by, quote, "impotence and incompetence."

In a conference call arranged by the Romney campaign today, Dov Zakheim, a former Defense Department official in the Reagan administration, dismissed Gingrich.

DOV ZAKHEIM: He just wasn't a factor, other than a sort of a gadfly who criticized Mr. Reagan on occasion. But if you read the memoires of Cap Weinberger or George Shultz, you won't even see Newt Gingrich's name mentioned at all. He simply was not a major factor.

NAYLOR: Romney has also directly questioned Gingrich's ties with Reagan, raising the issue at a recent debate.

MITT ROMNEY: I mean, I looked at the Reagan diary. You're mentioned once in Ronald Reagan's diary.

NAYLOR: And Restore Our Future, the superPAC backing Romney, put out this ad making much the same charge.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: From the debates, you'd think Newt Gingrich was Ronald Reagan's vice president.

GINGRICH: I worked with President Ronald Reagan. Worked with Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan playbook. President Reagan. Reagan. Reagan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Gingrich exaggerates, dropping Reagan's name 50 times. But in his diaries, Reagan mentioned Gingrich...

NAYLOR: In response, at last night's debate, Gingrich pointed to Romney's unsuccessful run for the Senate and how he then distanced himself from the Reagan-Bush era.

GINGRICH: In '94, running against Teddy Kennedy, he said flatly, I don't want to go back to the Reagan-Bush era. I was an independent.

NAYLOR: There are several ironies about all this back and forth. In the battle over Reagan's legacy, both Gingrich and Romney forget the 11th commandment popularized by the former president. Thou shalt not attack a fellow Republican.

And while for older Republicans, Reagan remains a touchstone, for young voters, this is a squabble over a figure familiar only from history books and perhaps grainy YouTube videos.

Brian Naylor, NPR News with the Gingrich campaign in Miami.



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