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Campaign 2012

Romney, Gingrich rift has old roots

Diverging paths date to 1994

Mitt Romney greeted supporters at the Columbus Day parade in Worcester in 1994. Today, Romney is trying to cast himself as an authentic conservative in the Ronald Reagan mold. Mitt Romney greeted supporters at the Columbus Day parade in Worcester in 1994. Today, Romney is trying to cast himself as an authentic conservative in the Ronald Reagan mold. (c.j. gunther/Associated Press file)
By Michael Kranish
Globe Staff / December 14, 2011
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WASHINGTON - The defining moment of the current Republican presidential campaign may have come 17 years ago.

In his unsuccessful 1994 bid for a US Senate seat, Mitt Romney wooed Massachusetts moderates by famously declaring: “I’m not trying to return to Reagan-Bush.’’ Less remembered, but perhaps even more relevant today, was how he labeled Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America “a mistake.’’

Gingrich, meanwhile, used the contract to lead a GOP revolution that took over the US House. Casting himself as a loyal disciple of Ronald Reagan, he won and became speaker.

That crucial period defines both men as they battle for the conservative base to become their party’s presidential nominee. It also provides a window into the split among Republicans about the direction of their party, which continues to be divided between the establishment wing associated with Romney and the more revolutionary faction linked to Gingrich.

“I think it has always haunted him,’’ said John Lakian, Romney’s primary opponent in the 1994 race, referring to the way Romney distanced himself from the conservative wing. For Lakian, who said he “tilts toward Gingrich,’’ watching the current race seems like an echo of his own campaign against Romney, in which he positioned himself as the more conservative candidate.

Today, Romney is trying to convince voters that, while he has switched positions on numerous issues, he is now an authentic conservative in the Reagan mold. In fact, yesterday in a Washington Post interview he said, “[Gingrich] was right; I was wrong. The Contract with America was a very effective political tool. I didn’t think it would be. It certainly was.’’ The campaign did not provide further comment.

Gingrich is trying to convince voters that, while he brought a revolution to Washington, he has changed from being the divisive politician who was ousted from the speakership by members of his own party.

The views of both men in 1994 about the Contract with America remain deeply relevant with voters today, according to Pat Griffin, a New Hampshire political analyst who worked for Romney during the early part of his 2008 campaign but is unaligned this time.

“It is one of the systemic parts of the Gingrich brands that voters remember most,’’ Griffin said. As a result, Griffin said Gingrich is trying to cast Romney as “the guy who in 1994 opposed the very contract of the revolution that Gingrich was leading.’’ Gingrich, during Saturday’s debate, deflected Romney’s charge that he was a career politician by reminding voters of where they stood 17 years ago, saying, “The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is you lost to Teddy [Senator Edward] Kennedy in 1994.’’ That, in turn, has led to the renewed focus on how Romney had distanced himself from Gingrich’s contract.

The divide between the two candidates began when Romney ran for the US Senate in Massachusetts, casting himself as favoring abortion rights and positioning himself to the left of most Republicans on various issues. He said he had been an independent during the presidencies of Reagan and George H.W. Bush, leaving the impression he thought they had been too conservative.

Gingrich, meanwhile, was a Reaganite who thought Bush had been too moderate. Gingrich was a backbencher from Georgia who had risen to become Republican minority whip in 1990. Outraged that Bush had signed onto a bipartisan deal that violated his “Read my lips - No new taxes’’ pledge, Gingrich led the majority of House Republicans in opposition. While the measure passed, Gingrich’s action divided the Republican Party. The establishment wing of the party blamed Gingrich’s revolutionaries for causing Bush’s reelection defeat in 1992.

Then, in 1994, Gingrich came up with the Contract with America, a 10-point plan that included calls for a balanced budget amendment, welfare reform, and a line-item veto. Gingrich persuaded 378 House candidates to sign the contract, demonstrating how widespread the support had become within the party. But Romney, in his Oct. 27, 1994, debate with Kennedy, made clear his reservations with both the contract and Gingrich’s style of governing.

“In my view, it is not a good idea to go into a contract like what was organized by the Republican Party in Washington, laying out a whole series of things which the party said, ‘These are the things we’re going to do,’ ’’ Romney said during the debate. “I think that’s a mistake.’’

Romney then outlined what he called his style of governing. “If you want to get something done in Washington, you don’t end up picking teams with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other entering into a contract saying, ‘OK, we’re all going to do this,’ and then of course if that works, then the other side feels like they’re the loser,’’ Romney said. “But if it wins, they feel like the winner. I don’t like winners and losers in Washington. I’d rather say let’s get together and work together.’’

Those words, mirroring the views of more moderate Republicans, could not have been more at odds with Gingrich’s view of political power. He advised Republican candidates to describe themselves with words such as “courage’’ and “freedom’’ and to label Democrats with words such as “pathetic’’ and “traitor.’’

After becoming speaker, Gingrich used his power to force the government into a shutdown rather than compromise with Democrats during budget negotiations. That move backfired among the general public and helped lead his fellow Republicans to oust him in 1998.

In the years since then, however, the Republican Party has moved more toward Gingrich’s view, epitomized by the influence of the Tea Party movement, which has pushed the party further into the kind of absolutist position that Romney believed would stifle legislative progress.

Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond declined to comment directly on Romney’s opposition to the Contract with America, saying, “Whatever the good governor said in 1994 are his words.’’

The more Gingrich has surged, the more the themes from 1994 have been playing out. Romney said in Saturday’s debate that he would not be a “bomb thrower’’ but a careful, analytical president. Gingrich, presumably the bomb thrower to whom Romney was referring, responded that he would “tell the truth’’ and not be “timid.’’

In a surprising twist on the 1994 parallel, Gingrich on Monday criticized Romney in a manner almost identical to the way that Kennedy did during the Senate primary. The turning point in that campaign came when Kennedy ran ads suggesting that Romney’s Bain Capital profited by closing factories.

Gingrich, responding to Romney’s challenge that he return the $1.6 million in consultant fees he earned from Freddie Mac, the quasi-government mortgage company, said he would consider doing so only if Romney gave back money he earned by “bankrupting companies and laying off employees.’’

In 1994, after Lakian lost the primary to Romney, he served as a media commentator for the general election debate. When he heard Romney tell Kennedy that he wasn’t trying to return to the days of Reagan-Bush, Lakian declared that the race was over for Romney. Now, Lakian said, the question is whether concerns about that viewpoint will end his chances for winning the Republican nomination. Said Lakian: “This is the same problem.’’

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKranish

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