Politics & Policy

The Ryan Primary

Romney and Gingrich battle for the hearts of budget hawks.

‘With allies like that, who needs the Left?”

Rep. Paul Ryan’s quip, uttered with a chuckle on Laura Ingraham’s radio program on May 16, nearly sank the Gingrich campaign.

Seven months later, as Republicans prepare to vote in Iowa and elsewhere, the episode has returned to haunt Gingrich, who has climbed to the top of the polls.

Ryan’s riposte, as you may remember, came a day after Gingrich assailed Ryan’s Medicare plan during an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press. “That is too big a jump,” Gingrich said, calling it “right-wing social engineering.”

Gingrich, who days earlier had announced his presidential candidacy, was quickly put on the defensive, and roundly criticized by Republicans.

At a campaign stop in Iowa in mid-May, a voter confronted Gingrich, and video of the exchange was widely played on cable news. “What you did to Paul Ryan was unforgivable,” the voter said. “You’re an embarrassment.”

Sensing trouble, Gingrich advisers scurried to connect the candidate with conservative bloggers and tea-party activists, hoping to repair Gingrich’s standing with Ryan supporters. Gingrich also called Ryan to apologize.

But the melee left bruises, and two months later, when most of Gingrich’s senior advisers quit the campaign, the Ryan kerfuffle was cited as one of many reasons for the summer implosion.

And it remains an obstacle for his surging campaign. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Gingrich’s chief rival in the polls, is highlighting Gingrich’s Ryan critique, dusting off the NBC video and the Ingraham audio.

One particularly hard-hitting web ad, which uses gloomy, swelling orchestral music to stoke the drama, is titled “With Friends like Newt.” It also features grainy visuals and anti-Gingrich barbs from Charles Krauthammer, Pat Buchanan, and William J. Bennett.

Romney aides are simultaneously encouraging campaign surrogates to blast Gingrich about his Ryan quotes. They see vulnerabilities for Gingrich, who is framing himself as the more conservative contender, and an opening for Romney, who wants to strengthen his ties to budget hawks.

The comments, as Romney sources explain, not only show Gingrich slamming a rising star, but underscore his firebrand tendencies.

In a conference call with reporters last week, Romney confidant and former New Hampshire governor John Sununu piled on, calling Gingrich “irrational.” Sununu added that Gingrich’s swipe was “an effort of self-aggrandizement,” and “the most self-serving, anti-conservative thing.”

Sources close to the Gingrich campaign downplay the flap, noting that Gingrich and Ryan respect each other, and occasionally e-mail to share ideas. Most within his camp shrug off the Romney campaign’s latest attacks as a flailing attempt to regain momentum, using recycled news as fuel.

Former Iowa congressman Greg Ganske, a Gingrich adviser, tells National Review Online that Gingrich has said that he wishes “he had used a little different language” during that May interview. But overall, he says, Gingrich remains in a strong position to win over Ryan aficionados.

“The fundamental point that [Gingrich] was making was that when you’re talking about something as important as Medicare or Social Security, you need to have the country behind you on that,” Ganske says.

Still, some Gingrich sources concede that the Romney push at least complicates the battle within the GOP primary for the fiscal-conservative mantle. On-the-fence GOP voters respect Ryan, aides to both campaigns say, and could look to the Wisconsin Republican for guidance.

Ryan, the influential budget-committee chairman, may not endorse a candidate before January, but the competition to be seen as a Ryan ally is intense, says one GOP insider. Romney’s latest ads, the insider says, are part of what Republican strategists dub the “Ryan primary,” with Romney and Gingrich eager to be identified as fellow travelers.

Gingrich, for his part, hasn’t backed down from the challenge, telling CNBC’s Larry Kudlow last week that he, not Romney, is the true economic maverick in the race, regardless of Team Romney’s snipes. “I was part of [Jack] Kemp’s little cabal of supply-siders,” he said, marking his connection to Kemp, the late GOP congressman and Ryan mentor.

For the moment, however, Romney appears to be pacing ahead of Gingrich. In October, he huddled with Ryan in Washington, soliciting the congressman’s advice about entitlements before writing a USA Today op-ed about his position, which echoed aspects of Ryan’s budget.

“It shows we’re all singing from the same hymnal,” Ryan told NRO in early November soon after the op-ed was published. Romney, he said approvingly, is “willing to be bold and specific on the big issues.”

George Lovejoy, a leading New Hampshire taxpayer advocate and Romney supporter, says those comments from Ryan and the op-ed will help Romney in coming weeks, shoring up support with fiscal conservatives who may have lingering questions about Gingrich. “I think it shows courage and it shows a commitment to fixing our country’s economic crisis,” he says. “It shows his judgment on [entitlements].”

Gingrich backers caution that it is too early to say that Romney has won over Ryan and his ardent supporters. They point to Ryan’s recent comments as evidence. Pressed by the Beltway press corps last week about Gingrich’s past criticism, Ryan declined the chance to knock Gingrich, saying he is “not going to get into that” and would happily work with the former speaker should he win the presidency.

Gingrich “misspoke, he acknowledged it as much, he said that he misspoke, and I’m just going to leave it at that,” Ryan said according to Politico. “Look, we all have different ideas on how best to solve this country’s problems. . . . But on the Republican side of the aisle, we all share the same principles. We all share the same end goal.”

And Gingrich is reminding voters that his campaign is about more than a stray comment to David Gregory. In a recent interview with Glenn Beck, he noted that if elected he would “implement the Medicare reforms that Paul Ryan wants,” and give Americans the option to “choose premium support.”

The tack could pay off for Gingrich, predicts Rick Tyler, a former aide to Gingrich who left the campaign earlier this year. Romney’s attacks, Tyler says, hint at the desperation in Boston more than Gingrich’s vulnerability.

“People with glass jaws shouldn’t throw rocks in glass houses,” Tyler says, amused at Romney’s sudden embrace of Ryan and his potshots at Gingrich. Gingrich, he says, will likely not take the bait, focusing instead on his long record of fiscal and economic success as speaker.

Richard Viguerie, a longtime conservative activist, agrees, telling NRO that as much as Romney cozies up to Ryan, the former Bay State governor will find it hard to argue that he is more connected to the Right. Romney may fill the Iowa airwaves with ads, he says, but Gingrich — to his credit — is reassuring conservatives behind the scenes about his principles.

Come January, Viguerie says, that could mean more in the battle for the hearts of fiscal conservatives than any well-produced video or Sununu conference call. “We’ve agreed, we’ve disagreed with Newt,” he says. “Sometimes we’ve hollered at him, sometimes we’re furious with him. But it’s been in the context of the conservative family, so to speak, as opposed to Romney, who is outside of that family. . . . The fact that Romney can outspend him on television doesn’t really matter.”

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

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