Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) pose before the Republican Party presidential candidates debate in Sioux City, Iowa, December 15, 2011. (JEFF HAYNES/REUTERS)

Answering a debate question about his electability, Gingrich invoked the conservative icon, but when asked about his leadership credentials, he turned the tables and cited a favorite of Democrats, former president Bill Clinton.

“I believe I can debate Barack Obama and I think in seven three-hour debates Barack Obama will not have a leg to stand on in trying to defend a record that is terrible and an ideology that is radical.”

Later, when pressed about his leadership ability, the former House speaker pointed to a record of accomplishments that includes a balanced budget and welfare reform while in Congress and touted his ability to have “actually worked things out with Bill Clinton.” Never mind the government shutdown in 1995 (these days, there are only a lot of threats, not actual shutdowns), and the fact that Gingrich’s House impeached the former president for only the second time in history.

Gingrich laughed at a suggestion by Mitt Romney, his main rival for the GOP presidential nod, that he is an unreliable conservative. Romney has been using increasingly pointed language in recent days to paint Gingrich as erratic and unpredictable and even “zany,” as he told CNN.

“I think on the conservative thing it is sort laughable to suggest that somebody [who has campaigned with] Ronald Reagan and with Jack Kemp and has had a 30 year record of conservatism is somehow not a conservative,” he said. “I spent 16 years working to create the first Republican majority in 40 years. I spent years helping create the first balanced commitment to disciplined systematic work is fairly obvious.”

Gingrich’s mentions of Reagan in some ways is meant to draw attention to Romney’s statement in 1994 that he was an independent during the Reagan-Bush years.

Toward the end of the debate, Gingrich took a swipe at Romney’s argument that he is somehow unstable, saying that he is mindful of throwing rhetorical bombs.

“You know Neil, I sometimes get accused of using language that’s too strong, so I’ve been standing here editing,” he said. “I’m very concerned about not appearing to be zany.”

Gingrich also mounted a strong defense of the Keystone Pipeline, criticizing President Obama for kowtowing to special interests.

The president of the United States cannot figure out that it is utterly say I’m now going to veto a middle class tax cut to protect left wing environmental extremists in San Francisco so that we’re going to kill American jobs, weaken American energy, make us more vulnerable to the Iranians and do so in a way that makes no sense to any normal, rational American.”

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