Opinion Top of the Ticket

Florida primary: Is Newt Gingrich conservatism's true champ?

Desperate to blunt the onslaught of Mitt Romney's attack machine and survive a likely loss in the Florida Republican primary, Newt Gingrich is branding Romney as a Massachusetts liberal and proclaiming himself the only true champion of Ronald Reagan conservatism.

He’s got Sarah Palin rooting –- or should I say “rootin’ ” –- for him. B-movie tough guy Chuck Norris is in his camp. Herman Cain, who shares Newt’s penchant for quirky ideas and marital elasticity, has endorsed him. And Reagan’s elder son, Michael, a right-wing radio host, is campaigning at his side. But some ardent conservatives are not buying Gingrich’s claim.

Pat Buchanan, who -- before he was a TV pundit and retired renegade presidential candidate -- served as Reagan’s communications director, told his fellow bloviators on the McLaughlin Group over the weekend that Gingrich was considered an untrustworthy opportunist by many in the Gipper’s White House. Back in the day, Buchanan said, Gingrich was a Rockefeller Republican who was not in synch with Reagan’s brand of conservatism.

“I don’t think he has a core,” Buchanan said. “I don’t think he has a fundamental, ideological and political core.”

Michelle Malkin, the conservative movement’s Attila the Honey, bestowed her blogospherian blessing on Rick Santorum on Monday and, in so doing, delivered a sharp elbow to Newt’s claims to be a true conservative. She listed all the ways in which Santorum has held fast to proper right-wing positions, while Gingrich has not. On immigration, individual healthcare mandates, global warming, bank bailouts and more, Gingrich has been on the wrong side, according to Malkin.

“It’s not just ‘the GOP establishment’ that’s repulsed by Gingrich’s combination of moral baggage and K Street/Beltway culture of corruption,” Malkin said. “It’s the very grass-roots that Gingrich’s cheerleaders purport to represent.”

Malkin, of course, is right. Gingrich has flipped positions as frequently as the “Massachusetts liberal” he is trying to discredit in the Sunshine State. But Newt is so much like a frisky bee zigzagging through a field of ideological blossoms that it has been tougher for most people to follow his path.

Besides, being consistently right on the right is not so easy. Conservatives are like a conclave of medieval priests incessantly arguing doctrinal purity and hurling accusations of apostasy at each other. Today’s true conservative is tomorrow’s heretic. For all the American voters to the left of Pat Buchanan and Michelle Malkin -– which is about 75% of the electorate -– Gingrich, Santorum and Romney all qualify as conservatives.

What differentiates them is temperament. Gingrich’s ability to channel tea party anger and paranoia and give it an intelligent-sounding, glib voice is what has kept him alive through the primaries. It is also what, in the fall campaign, would scare away independent voters who don’t care about conservative purity but certainly know a loose cannon when they see one.

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