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GOP Candidates Wrangle Over Reagan's Legacy

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As he campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich almost always works the name of Ronald Reagan into his speeches.

In fact, it's become so common that Gingrich's name-dropping has become an issue itself.

Sometimes Gingrich invokes the name of Ronald Reagan to associate himself with the policies of the former president.

"When I worked with President Reagan, we adopted a lower tax, less regulation, more American energy policy, and it led to 16 million new jobs," Gingrich said at a speech in St. Petersburg, Fla., this week.

Sometimes he invokes Reagan's name as an inspiration.

"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 and '76, and I am 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," Gingrich said a few days later in Central Florida.

Sometimes Gingrich claims to be Reagan's political heir.

"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 I was carrying out the values that he believed in," said Gingrich.

And he's more or less right.

The former first lady actually did mention Gingrich after Republicans won a majority in the House and elected Gingrich as their speaker after the 1994 elections.

"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," she said.

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 Elliott Abrams recalls Gingrich criticizing Reagan's policy in Afghanistan, saying it was marked by "impotence and incompetence."

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

"He just wasn't a factor other than a sort of gadfly who criticized Mr. Reagan on occasion. But if you read the memoirs 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," said Zakheim.

Mitt Romney has also directly questioned Gingrich's ties with Reagan.

"I looked at the Reagan diary. You're mentioned once in Ronald Reagan's diary. And in the diary, he says you had an idea in a meeting of young congressmen, and it wasn't a very good idea, and he dismissed it. That's the entire mention," Romney said at a recent debate.

Restore our Future, the superPAC backing Romney, put out an ad making much the same charge, that "Reagan rejected Gingrich's ideas."

In response, at Thursday's debate, Gingrich pointed to Romney's unsuccessful 1994 run for the Senate and how Romney then distanced himself from the Reagan era.

"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,' " Gingrich said.

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

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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