Three marriages. Two divorces. Add up the numbers, and Newt Gingrich is an improbable candidate to win over the influential social-conservative bloc in the GOP.
But in this unconventional cycle, both national and early-primary-state evangelical and social-conservative leaders are signaling that Gingrich’s personal history is no insurmountable obstacle, although some would like to see him further address his past decisions.
“In general, I think people who have experienced the ultimate form of forgiveness themselves are willing to extend mercy and extend forgiveness to others,” says Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
“In Newt’s case, he’s been very transparent and open about saying that he made mistakes in the past and that he’s found forgiveness and peace through faith in God,” Reed adds. “He’s got a strong marriage, and he’s close to his daughters and the rest of his family, and just based on what we’re seeing in Iowa and nationally, I think he addressed this, and I tend to think it’s a largely settled issue.”
Richard Land, director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is more skeptical, saying that Gingrich’s candidacy will be a “hard sell” for many voters. Land has been doing informal focus groups among Southern Baptists for the past two years on Gingrich’s candidacy, as he expected Gingrich to run and be a serious contender. He found that women are especially wary of Gingrich.
“He’s got a gender problem,” Land says. “His toughest audience is going to be evangelical women. Evangelical men, depending on what Newt does and says, are more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt.” Women, on the other hand, have told Land that they would vote for Gingrich “under no circumstances.” If the general election comes down to Gingrich and Obama, they say, they may just not vote.
Land thinks Gingrich should “find a pro-family venue” and deliver a speech akin to John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on Catholicism.
“He needs to make the speech of his life, and in his mind, his target has got to be 40- to 60-year-old evangelical women,” Land advises. “And he’s got to convince them that he’s sorry, he regrets it, he would do anything he could to undo the pain and the hurt that he’s caused, he understands the pain and the hurt that he’s caused, and he has learned his lesson. That he has thrown himself on the grace of Jesus, and that if they elect him president, he will not let them down — that there will be no moral scandal in a Gingrich White House.”
One key move Gingrich made in 2007 was doing an interview with influential social conservative James Dobson, then chairman of the board at the prominent evangelical organization Focus on the Family. Gingrich’s candid and contrite answers may have helped make significant inroads in reconciling social conservatives to him. Speaking about former misdeeds, Gingrich said, “I look back on those as periods of weakness and periods that I’m not only not proud of, but that I would deeply urge my children and grandchildren not to follow in my footsteps.”
“Somebody once said that when you’re young you want justice and that when you get older you want mercy,” Gingrich mused later in the interview. “I also believe that there are things in my own life that I have turned to God and have gotten on my knees and prayed about and sought God’s forgiveness.”