hide captionNewt Gingrich, shown with his wife, Callista Gingrich, attends a pre-debate rally sponsored by the Faith and Freedom Coalition earlier this year in Florida. The thrice-married former House speaker, who cheated on his first two wives and was punished by the House for ethical violations, is now outperforming family man Mitt Romney among Iowa's evangelicals.
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One of the puzzles of the Republican presidential campaign is Newt Gingrich's appeal to religious conservatives. The irony is that Gingrich, a Catholic convert who has had three marriages, is outperforming Romney, a lifelong Mormon and family man. In fact, less than a month before the Iowa caucuses, the former speaker of the House has three times the support of evangelicals in that state that Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, does.
Now Romney is trying to mix it up. In an ad airing across Iowa, the former governor of Massachusetts describes himself as a man of "steadiness and constancy."
"I don't think you're going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do," Romney says in a clip from one of his debates. "I've been married to the same woman for 25 — excuse me, I'll get in trouble — for 42 years. I've been in the same church my entire life."
Romney's ad is meant to remind viewers of a sharp contrast with his rival. Gingrich has been married three times. He cheated on his first two wives. He's been a Lutheran, a Southern Baptist, and is now a Catholic. Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, says Romney is trying to highlight Gingrich's Achilles' heel.
"It's a thinly veiled swipe at Newt Gingrich's personal life," he says. "It's trying to draw a contrast between Romney, who has been married to one person for four decades, and Newt Gingrich, who has acknowledged what he calls his own personal failings in the past."
Rozell says the soft attack is necessary because suddenly Gingrich finds himself the front-runner among Iowa's evangelical Christians.
Sin And Redemption
On Thanksgiving weekend, nearly 3,000 evangelicals gathered in Iowa to hear six candidates discuss their values. Romney was not there. Gingrich described his life as "remarkably successful," with a strong marriage to his current wife.
"But all of that has required a great deal of pain, some of which I have caused others, which I regret deeply," Gingrich said, "all of those required having to go to God to seek both reconciliation, but also to seek God's acceptance, that I had to recognize how limited I was."
Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, which put on the conference, says people seem willing to believe Gingrich has changed. After all, sin and redemption are key to the evangelical story.
"The centerpiece of our faith is forgiveness," he says.
Vander Plaats says evangelicals also like Gingrich because they want a conservative they can trust.
"There's a certain anxiety and, dare I say, fearfulness about the world we live in today," he says, and "they're probably willing to forgive and move on from the baggage of the past, the misgivings of the past, if they really believe he's the best one prepared to lead to a safer, more vibrant America."
But Robert Jones, who heads Public Religion Research Institute, says one reason that Gingrich may be doing so well is that people might not know much about him. Jones says when they learn of his divorces, or that he was reprimanded for ethical violations in Congress, they may have second thoughts.
"These are things that evangelicals care about," he says. "They tend to draw a fairly straight line between candidates' behavior in their personal lives and candidates' ability to lead their country in their professional lives."
Jones' polls find that two-thirds of white evangelicals doubt that an official who commits an immoral act in his personal life can behave ethically in his public life. The same number say if a candidate commits adultery, he should resign.
'They Want To Hear More Regret'
Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, is hearing similar murmurings. Land has conducted about 200 focus groups. He says that when asked about Gingrich's infidelities, men are willing to "let bygones be bygones." But evangelical women want more.
"I think what they want to hear is that he really understands the pain and the suffering and the sense of betrayal that comes when you are unfaithful to your spouse," Land says.
Land thinks Gingrich's apologies haven't gone far enough. Earlier this year, for example, he told Christian Broadcasting Network: "There's no question that at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and that things happened in my life that were not appropriate."
Land says Gingrich needs to make a heartfelt apology.
"Look, this is going to be a very close election," he says. "And if Newt gets the nomination, he needs every vote he can get. And what I'm saying is, there are evangelical women out there that are currently going to not vote. They're willing to forgive him, but they want him to ask for it, and they want to hear more regret."
So, given this baggage, why is Gingrich faring so well, at least for now?
"One of the things that Newt Gingrich has going for him is that he's not Romney," says pollster Robert Jones. He says that half of white evangelicals don't believe that Mormons are Christians, nor are they comfortable with the idea of a Mormon president.
Political scientist Mark Rozell says that faith issue — combined with the fact that evangelicals don't trust Romney on social issues like gay rights and abortion — is tilting many toward Gingrich.
"What really matters to most voters, including the evangelical conservatives, is policy — who's right on the issues, who's going to represent their views in the White House," he says. "And more believe Newt Gingrich is that man than Mitt Romney."
But the fight for the evangelical vote has just begun. On Thursday, one megachurch pastor in Iowa distributed an anti-Gingrich video focusing on his family life and his Catholic faith.