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.”
Penny Nance, president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, praises Gingrich for being “very transparent” in that interview and for showing a willingness “to discuss some of the mistakes he’s made in his life.” Nance wasn’t the only one listening; many Iowans also likely tuned in, according to Bob Vander Plaats, Mike Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa campaign chairman and currently president of the social-conservative group The Family Leader, who extols Gingrich for being “very upfront, very transparent, very humble and repentful” in his conversation with Dobson.
Another advantage to Gingrich’s fessing up in 2007, Vander Plaats notes, is that it avoids the appearance of a sudden change of heart. “It wasn’t what I would call a presidential conversion. There are times when we talk about Paul having the ‘road to Damascus’ conversion. We sometimes in Iowa say some of these candidates have had a ‘road to Des Moines’ conversion,” he chuckles.
Unlike Land, Vander Plaats doesn’t think women are necessarily opposed to a Gingrich candidacy. “I really thought some of the soccer moms would really have an issue,” he muses. So when he heard that a soccer mom was supporting Gingrich, he asked her about it. “She put it in kind of a unique way,” Vander Plaats said of the woman’s answer. “She said, ‘I believe his childish ways are behind him.’”
This Saturday, Gingrich (along with the other presidential candidates, minus Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman) is slated to attend Vander Plaats’s forum, featuring Frank Luntz as moderator, which should give him another opportunity to make his case to Iowa social conservatives.
Ann Trimble-Ray, a Republican Central Committee county chairwoman in Iowa who considers herself socially conservative, thinks that Gingrich’s “past issues with marital infidelity” may have “kept folks from jumping on a Gingrich bandwagon.” But as Hawkeye voters have whipped through other candidates, a narrowing field has forced them to reconsider. Furthermore, while social conservatives want a candidate who has promised “to vote right” on the issues they care about, Trimble-Ray says, they also want someone who is “best positioned to go up against Barack Obama in the general election.”
In evangelical stronghold South Carolina, there is similar openness to Gingrich’s being the nominee. Oran P. Smith, president and CEO of the Palmetto Family Council, notes that most evangelicals have at some moment in their lives “turned away from their bad ways and moved forward toward a Christian worldview” and may thus be sympathetic to Gingrich’s journey.
“The way Newt Gingrich has handled his past, he has been very direct about the fact that he thought that his former ways were sinful ways, and I think generally, because of the experience of the average evangelical, evangelical Christians tend to be pretty quick to forgive,” Smith observes.
Nor does he see any need for Gingrich to deliberately address the matter again in a prominent way. Instead, he thinks that a low-key approach and a willingness to take questions on the topic will best serve Gingrich. “He doesn’t need to be doing any mea culpa press conferences, I don’t think. But when he is talking to private groups and informally, I think he needs to address it,” he says.
A boon for Gingrich is his daughter Jackie Gingrich Cushman’s decision to pen a column in May addressing the oft-repeated lie that Gingrich served her mother Jackie Battley Gingrich with divorce papers as she was dying of cancer. That, Cushman emphasized in her column, was not what happened. While Gingrich did take Cushman and her sister to the hospital to visit their mother, his first wife, after she had had a benign tumor removed in surgery, the divorce process had been initiated prior to the visit by Jackie Battley Gingrich (who is still alive).
Beyond his marital history, another potential sticking point for Gingrich when courting evangelical voters is his conversion to Catholicism two years ago. (Gingrich was previously Southern Baptist.) Land estimates that at most “a tiny sliver” of evangelicals, primarily older people, will reject Gingrich on that ground, noting that conversion hasn’t much dented evangelical support for former Florida governor Jeb Bush or current Kansas governor Sam Brownback, both Catholic converts from Protestant backgrounds. Smith agrees. “We have a heritage in South Carolina that’s mostly Protestant, clearly,” he says, “but I don’t really think most evangelicals when they are choosing who to vote for are thinking in those terms, to parse the differences between the professing Christian denominations.”
Ultimately, for Gingrich, the key to winning over dubious social conservatives is consistently showing both that he understands why his past troubles them and that he is no longer the man he used to be.
“Character counts and it should count, and we want to see leaders who have the right moral compass,” Concerned Women for America’s Nance reflects, but she notes that there is also “room for redemption.”
“It’s important for people to own their mistakes,” she adds, “and the more that Newt Gingrich does that, the better it will be for him.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.