Conservative by Association? Gingrich Channels Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum

Conservative by association? That seems to be the tact GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is taking in his effort to paint himself as the conservative alternative to fellow front-runner Mitt Romney.

The former House speaker has mentioned conservative hero Ronald Reagan 55 times in the past 18 debates, more than every other Republican candidate combined, according to an analysis by the New York Times' Nat Silver.

From touting the work he did with Reagan as a member of the House, to drawing parallels between Reagan's underdog upset of former President Jimmy Carter and Gingrich's own  resurgent  campaign, the candidate has made no secret of his admiration for the former president.

"I am much like Reagan," Gingrich told CNN in November. "I'm such an unconventional political figure that you really need to design a unique campaign that fits the way I operate and what I'm trying to do."

Gingrich drew an even closer connection with the Gipper at Monday's debate , saying he "met Ronald Reagan" and "helped Gov. Reagan become President Reagan."

But while Gingrich has aimed to draw close parallels between himself and Reagan, a pro-Romney super PAC has tried to put daylight between the former speaker and the former president.

An  ad released today by the Restore Our Future super PAC attacks Gingrich's plentiful Reagan references, claiming "Gingrich is no Ronald Reagan."

"From debates, you'd think Newt Gingrich was Ronald Reagan's vice president," the ad's narrator says. "Reagan rejected Gingrich's ideas. On leadership and character, Gingrich is no Ronald Reagan."

As the ad points out, Reagan mentions Gingrich only once in his diary and clearly does not hold the same esteem for the then-young congressman as Gingrich obviously has for the former president today.

Reagan's only mention of Gingrich is a reflection on a meeting with "young Republican congressmen" during which Gingrich proposed freezing federal spending.  Reagan said the idea was "tempting" but would "cripple our defense program."

The Romney campaign's criticism is echoed by Elliot Abrams, who served as an assistant Secretary of State under Reagan.

Abrams writes in a National Journal column that Gingrich "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 says in the article.

Gingrich's Republican opponents also channel the Gipper, but their references are comparatively few and far between. Silver's debate-transcript analysis showed Rick Santorum name-dropping Reagan 14 times throughout the past 18 debates. Ron Paul and Mitt Romney each referenced him six times.