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One issue that could come up during Saturday's debate is faith. Newt Gingrich is fast-winning over the party's religious conservatives. In Iowa, he has three times the evangelical support that Romney does.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports on why Gingrich, with that messy personal history that Mara mentioned, is still out-performing the squeaky clean Romney.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: In an ad airing across Iowa, Mitt Romney describes himself as a man of steadiness and constancy.
(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)
MITT ROMNEY: I don't think you're going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do. I've been married to the same woman for 25 – excuse me, I'll get in trouble – for 42 years.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROMNEY: I've been in the same church my entire life. I worked at one company...
HAGERTY: Romney's ad is meant to remind viewers of a sharp contrast, Gingrich has been married three times. He cheated on his first two wives. He's been a Lutheran, a Southern Baptist, and now a Catholic.
Romney is trying to highlight Newt Gingrich's Achilles heel, says Professor Mark Rozell at George Mason University.
PROFESSOR MARK ROZELL: It's a thinly veiled swipe at Newt Gingrich's personal life. It's trying to draw a contrast between Romney, of course, 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.
HAGERTY: Rozell says the soft attack is necessary because suddenly, Gingrich finds himself the frontrunner among Iowa's evangelical Christians.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Welcome, welcome, welcome to the Thanksgiving Family Forum.
HAGERTY: Last month, 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.
NEWT GINGRICH: But all of that has required a great deal of pain, some of which I have caused others, which I regret deeply. All of which required having to go to God to seek both reconciliation but also to seek God's acceptance.
HAGERTY: 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 is key to the evangelical story.
BOB VANDER PLAATS: The centerpiece of our faith is forgiveness.
HAGERTY: He says they also like Gingrich because they want a conservative they can trust.
PLAATS: There's a certain anxiety and, dare I say, fearfulness about the world we live in today, that they're probably willing to forgive and move on from the baggage of the past if they really believe he's the best one prepared to lead to a safer, more vibrant America.
HAGERTY: 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. When they learn of his divorces, he says, or that he was reprimanded for ethical violations in Congress, they may have second thoughts.
DR. ROBERT JONES: I mean, these are things that evangelicals care about. 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.
HAGERTY: His 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.
Richard Land, a top official at the Southern Baptist Convention, is hearing similar murmurings. Land has conducted about 200 focus groups, and evangelical women say they remain upset about Gingrich's infidelities.
DR. RICHARD LAND: I think what they want to hear is that he really understands the pain and suffering and the sense of betrayal that comes when you are unfaithful to your spouse.
HAGERTY: Land thinks Gingrich's apologies, like this one earlier this year, haven't gone far enough.
GINGRICH: 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.
HAGERTY: Land says Gingrich needs to make a heartfelt apology.
LAND: 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.
HAGERTY: So, given this baggage, why is Gingrich faring so well, at least for now?
JONES: One of the things that Gingrich has going for him is that he's not Mitt Romney.
HAGERTY: Pollster Robert Jones says that half of evangelicals do not believe that Mormons are Christians, nor are they comfortable with the idea of a Mormon president.
And political scientist Mark Rozell adds that evangelicals don't trust Romney on social issues like gay rights and abortion.
ROZELL: What 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. And more of them believe that Newt Gingrich is that man than Mitt Romney.
HAGERTY: But the fight for the evangelical vote has just begun. Today, one mega church pastor in Iowa launched an anti-Gingrich video, focusing on his family life and his Catholic faith.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
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