GOP voters belie Gingrich’s claim to conservative mantle

Surveys find Romney winning plurality on right

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Mr. Gingrich, though, shrugged off Mr. Romney’s strong performance among Nevada conservatives during an appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” saying that “this is the state he won last time, and he won it this time.”

“Our goal is to get to Super Tuesday, where we’re in much more favorable territory,” he said, arguing that he expects to catch up with Mr. Romney by the time of the Texas primary on April 3, in part by highlighting that “real conservatives” like himself have been fighting to pull people out of poverty, while Mr. Romney “doesn’t worry much about the very poor because they have a safety net.”

Courting conservatives

Laying claim to the conservative throne is a tried-and-true strategy in GOP primaries, where candidates are eager to win over the grass-roots voters who play such an active role in determining the outcomes of the contests.

As a result, Mr. Romney has worked to convince voters that, after staking out a pro-choice position earlier in his career, he is now reliably pro-life. He also has portrayed Mr. Gingrich as unreliable and too erratic to lead and highlighted the 2008 global-warming awareness TV spot he cut with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as Mr. Gingrich’s ties to Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage giant that many conservatives blame for the housing crisis.

Mr. Gingrich, meanwhile, has built his campaign on the notion that he is cut from the same cloth as former President Ronald Reagan, a conservative icon, while casting Mr. Romney as a “moderate.”

He drilled home that message on the television talk-show circuit Sunday, warning that Mr. Romney’s claim to the conservative mantle is based on false advertising. He said Mr. Romney, as governor, “was pro-abortion, he was pro-gun control, he was pro-tax increase.”

“The challenge is to say, ‘Do you really want to go into a fall election with a moderate candidate?’ The last two times we nominated a moderate, 1996 and 2008, we lost badly,” he said, alluding to the failed presidential bids of former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, both of whom have endorsed Mr. Romney. “A conservative candidate can offer a much greater contrast with President Obama, can offer a much bigger difference.”

So far, though, conservatives seem more inclined to support Mr. Romney, leaving Mr. Gingrich looking for answers as the race heads toward contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Maine.

Gingrich is trying to find different angles around Romney’s growing momentum so he can head him off at the pass in upcoming primary states,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP consultant. “According to the polls, it isn’t clear that he is the conservative alternative; rather, he’s trying to say something to muddy the waters.”

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this reportfrom Nevada.

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