The Paul Ryan for vice president fan club is coalescing nicely: Lately, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The National Review have all thrown their support behind him. And Thursday on Hardball, Newt Gingrich joined the crowd.
"The smartest strategic thinker in Republican elected office today is Paul Ryan," the former speaker told Chris Matthews.
Gingrich appears to have changed his tune on Ryan. Last year, he called the Wisconsin lawmaker's budget, which cuts Medicare and other popular programs, "right-wing social engineering." (He apologized to Ryan for the comment two days later.)
Though Gingrich had kind words for other potential contenders like Rob Portman, Marco Rubio and Bob McDonnell, he reserved his highest praise for Ryan.
"You look at what he has mastered in the budget — whether you like or dislike the details ... this is a guy who has thought deeply about the reshaping of the American government to make it affordable, at a level that's really pretty courageous," Gingrich said. "And he's done it in a blue collar district with a large UAW membership, a lot of auto plants, and he's gotten re-elected by big margins going home and telling people who he is and what he honestly believes."
Gingrich's praise for Romney was less effusive. "I don't particularly dislike him as a person," he said.
Gingrich's quasi-endorsement adds to the chorus of conservative editorials urging Romney to select the Wisconsin lawmaker as his second. "The drum beat is getting louder and louder," said Matthews. "Can Romney appease conservatives by putting their golden boy on his ticket?"
Ryan is uniting conservatives almost as much as Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul—who set off a torrent of right-wing angst when she praised Romney's Massachusetts health care law, which he has since disavowed under pressure from the right.
"I suspect she picked a fight she regrets," Gingrich told Matthews, referring to Saul.
His comment is a milder version of the responses from conservative commentators Erick Erickson ("the day the Romney campaign died") and Ann Coulter ("there's no point in ... pushing for this man if he’s employing morons like this").
Still, Gingrich isn't backing off Romney's latest attack on Obama, over welfare. Despite admitting last night that there's "no proof" Obama would nix a work requirement for welfare recipients, Gingrich told Matthews the attack "is the first big step" in the direction of increasing Romney campaign aggression.