DES MOINES, Iowa--Newt Gingrich's tumultuous personal history--two divorces and a tabloid full of sordid details surrounding the circumstances of those breakups--has for years made him a controversial figure among evangelical voters. But that important segment of the Republican coalition, courted aggressively by Gingrich for more than a year, might be warming to the former House speaker as his presidential campaign surges in the polls. Their support is critical in a first test of his electoral appeal in Iowa's GOP caucus next month.
"I think the polls are reflective that the evangelical community and social conservatives are willing to give the speaker a second look," said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Christian political leader who heads the Iowa-based Family Leader. "I think they believe him that he's changed his life."
Gingrich married his third wife, Callista, over 11 years ago after the two conducted a six-year affair while Gingrich was still married to his second wife. Since their union, Gingrich has repented for what he calls his earlier moral shortcomings. In 2007, he told James Dobson, the head of the Focus on the Family, that he had "sought God's forgiveness" for things he had done in his life, an interview that some social conservatives point to as a turning point in his relationship with them.
"All of these candidates are flawed to some degree," said Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. "I think Newt has been pretty candid about his moral past, and he's asked God for forgiveness. I think people accept that for what it is."
Mark Lundbert, the chairman of the Sioux County Republican organization in one of the most conservative parts of the state, said, "I think all things being equal, if you can have somebody that meets all of your high moral standards, that's a plus. But I tell you what: Our country has such key problems now, we need the best person that can lead our country out of this mess."
He said he senses that Iowa's religious conservatives are split when it comes to Gingrich, but that an increasing number are warming to him. "I've very surprised at the number of very conservative people that are saying, "˜You know, we're looking at Newt as well.' "
Personally, Lundbert said, "I'm to the point now where I want a really bright person to fix these problems we're having, because clearly our current administration can't fix them."
In recent years, as he was considering a presidential bid, Gingrich made several personal and political moves that served to more closely align him with evangelical voters. About two years ago, Gingrich, a Southern Baptist who had not emphasized his religion in his professional life, converted to Catholicism, Callista's religion, and began to speak openly about his faith.
Social conservative issues were not a focus for him during his 20-year career in Congress. When Gingrich began to get involved in the campaign against gay marriage, he held a series of meetings with pastors known for their efforts to pass bans on same-sex marriage in the states. Then in 2009, he established a nonprofit organization called Renewing American Leadership devoted to issues of importance to social conservatives. The organization's political arm poured $150,000 into the successful campaign by Iowa social conservatives last year to oust three state Supreme Court judges, who were targeted after the high court struck down a ban on same-sex marriage.
The leader of that effort was Vander Plaats, and it marked a major victory for the state's social conservatives. Since then, Gingrich has incorporated opposition to judicial activism into his campaign message, warning of the dangers of courts imposing their will on the rest of society.
"I think that's what helped him get some attention from social conservatives," said Steve Deace, a conservative talk-show host in Iowa. "He's showed the most boldness on issues that matter."
That some evangelicals are giving Gingrich a second look doesn't mean all of them are happy about it. Indeed, word that Vander Plaats's Family Leader might give him the group's endorsement sparked a public spat this week with an anonymous group calling itself Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government. It accused Vander Plaats of favoring Gingrich because of a personal relationship he had with the ex-congressman while ignoring his past marital infidelity.
Southern Baptist leader Richard Land also wrote an open letter earlier this week emphasizing that many evangelical women still harbor concerns about Gingrich, saying he thought less than a third of them would trust him to be president. He urged Gingrich to give a complete accounting of his past indiscretions.
"Mr. Speaker, if you want to get large numbers of evangelicals, particularly women, to vote for you, you must address the issue of your marital past in a way that allays the fears of evangelical women," wrote Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. "You must address this issue of your marital past directly and transparently and ask folks to forgive you and give you their trust and their vote"
Vander Plaats, whose group is considering whether to endorse Gingrich or an alternative candidate, said, "I think there's some people that will take a look at Newt's past infidelity, a couple of divorces, three marriage "¦ those types of things and say that's too high a hurdle to clear to cast support for Gingrich."
The group is also considering Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, but it has not included former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on its list.
The importance of the evangelical vote is hard to underestimate in Iowa. Exit polls have shown that about two-thirds of Republican caucus-goers in the state self-identify as evangelical Christians. Given Romney's relative strength in New Hampshire, which votes after Iowa next month, a victory in the first caucus state would make Gingrich a serious contender for the Republican nomination.
Gingrich said himself on Thursday during an appearance in Des Moines, "It would be an enormous advantage if we could win here. We're going to do everything we can. I think we'll be in the top two or three. I can't tell you tonight we're going to win, but certainly we have an opportunity to win here, and we're going to do all we can to win here."