For months, many Republicans have cast about for an alternative to Mitt Romney, decrying him as insufficiently conservative. Now they appear to have settled on a new front-runner — Newt Gingrich — who is no more conservative than Romney.
Both men have parted company with the party's most active voters on many of the same issues. Both backed requiring individuals to purchase healthcare insurance. Both supported the Wall Street bailout known as TARP and government subsidies for ethanol production.
Both agreed that human activity is contributing to climate change (though each has backtracked in recent months). In the past, both supported trading systems designed to cap carbon emissions. Gingrich has favored research using stem cells from fertility clinics, putting him to the left of Romney on that issue.
This year, Gingrich undercut his own candidacy by criticizing a House GOP plan to restructure Medicare as "right-wing social engineering" — though he pushed for a similar plan when he was House speaker in the mid-1990s. But unlike Romney, who supports moving to Medicare vouchers, Gingrich now favors letting seniors remain in the current system, a stance that puts him more in line with Democrats.
For some GOP voters it may come down to image: Gingrich, who boasts that he is more conservative than Romney, forged his by leading a partisan revolt in 1994 that brought Republicans to power in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. And some Republicans have chosen to forgive his ideological straying because they appreciate his lacerating tone, far more brittle than Romney's.
Like other longtime politicians, Gingrich, 68, has evolved considerably over the years, shifting rightward with his party. He started out as a liberal Republican, working for Nelson Rockefeller's 1968 presidential campaign against Richard Nixon (there were few Republicans of any stripe in the South at the time, and Gingrich, who had recently moved to Louisiana, filled a void in the Rockefeller campaign there). His shift has caused some awkwardness: Just this week, Gingrich said in a CNN interview that he regretted his 1979 vote to create the federal Department of Education, a target for elimination by many conservatives.
He defends himself by pointing to a lifetime rating of 90 from the American Conservative Union. But David Keene, who headed the organization during most of Gingrich's 20 years in Congress, said Gingrich's rating is high in part because the issues on which he deviated were not voted on in Congress, and votes determine the group's scorecard.
"While he's not a conservative, he's a partisan. He's done a lot for conservatives. His speakership was basically conservative," said Keene, who calls Gingrich a friend but is neutral in the 2012 race.
"Neither guy is a perfect conservative," he added, though both "have projected a vision that falls within the conservative world."
The group does not grade governors. Romney, as a candidate and governor in Democratic Massachusetts, troubled many on the right with his healthcare mandate and his adoption of moderate positions on social issues such as abortion and gay rights that he later abandoned.
"When you look at how they would govern, in a conservative-liberal sense, Newt might have occasionally more radically conservative ideas, but he could also veer off in the other direction," Keene said. "Romney, in that sense, is probably more steady."
Yuval Levin, a domestic policy aide in George W. Bush's White House, said that "it's hard to see a single issue where Gingrich is more conservative" than Romney. But "people connect him to a time that is taken to be a pretty good time for Republicans. His record cuts both ways, though. People who have a memory of that time can remember failures as well as successes."
His rivals for the GOP nomination argue that Gingrich's record doesn't match his conservative image. Rep. Ron Paul, after cataloging what he deemed to be repeated betrayals by Gingrich and Romney, said that there's "not a dime's worth of difference" between the two men. Rep. Michele Bachmann calls them "the great pretenders."
The trailing candidates are likely to amplify their critiques in a televised debate Saturday night, when Gingrich will for the first time defend his position as the clear GOP front-runner.
On Thursday, the Romney campaign delivered a harsh attack on Gingrich, using his opposition to the current House Medicare plan to question his conservative credentials and his character.
Describing what he called Gingrich's tendency to "undermine the conservative agenda" with "outrageous" remarks, former Sen. Jim Talent said on a Romney campaign conference call that Gingrich had "completely blindsided" Rep. Paul D. Ryan, the House budget chairman who wrote the plan, with his objections in May. Gingrich is "not a reliable and trusted conservative leader because he's not a reliable or trustworthy leader," said the Missouri Republican, who served under Gingrich in the House.
To emphasize his conservative credentials, Romney criticized Gingrich's plan to provide a form of amnesty to some illegal immigrants now in the country as a "magnet" for continued illegal immigration.
But he "cannot attack Newt credibly from the right" because many Republican voters doubt the depth of Romney's conservatism, said a nonaligned Republican strategist. "He has to hope that Ron Paul or somebody else punches through in Iowa."
This week, Paul began airing the first anti-Gingrich attack ads in Iowa, where voting for the GOP nomination opens with the Jan. 3 caucuses there. The TV ad skewers Gingrich for supporting a healthcare mandate and for taking $1.6 million as a consultant to Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant that conservatives — and Gingrich himself — blame for the housing crisis.
"It's about serial hypocrisy," the Paul commercial concludes.