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Iowa Evangelicals Considering Political Redemption for Gingrich

Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich talks to his wife Callista, during adebate in a presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Scott Eells, Pool)
National Journal
Alex Roarty Sarah Huisenga
Dec. 2, 2011, 9:12 a.m.

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.”

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