Can social conservatives forgive Gingrich’s messy personal past?
This dilemma has profound significance for Gingrich in Iowa, where he and his 2012 rivals are battling to become the chief alternative to Mitt Romney among social conservatives, an influential voting bloc in the state.
A growing number of top Iowa conservatives view Gingrich as their best chance to block Romney's bid for the Republican nomination. But many so-called values voters, in Iowa and beyond, remain divided over whether they can back a candidate who has so much personal baggage.
Earlier this week, Iowa radio host Steve Deace held an informal focus group of uncommitted evangelical voters in the state. Asked if Gingrich's three marriages were a problem, all participants said "absolutely yes," according to Deace.
"What seemed to bother the group more than the divorces… were the affairs and the seeming lack of public repentance for them," Deace wrote in an analysis posted on his blog. "Some in the group feel Gingrich has done enough to restore their faith in him, most did not."
But Steve Scheffler, an influential Republican National Committee member who heads up the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, disputed the idea that social conservatives are still hung up on Gingrich's personal life.
"I think he's past that," Scheffler told Yahoo News. "He's asked for forgiveness and said he's not proud of his past, and I've heard him say it to a group of pastors about a year ago and to another meeting of pastors this year . . . . He's asked for God's forgiveness. I don't know how many times he has to say it. He's flawed. Everybody is flawed."
Yet Scheffler, who said Gingrich has the "best shot" of blocking Romney's path to the nomination, still won't endorse the former House speaker. In a surprise development this week, Scheffler's group, the IFFC, announced it would remain neutral in the GOP primary. And Scheffler said he won't make a personal endorsement, either.
The move comes after Scheffler participated in a meeting last week with several other top conservative groups in Iowa, including The Family Leader, who gathered to talk about jointly lining up behind one candidate. The goal: To unify a fractured conservative coalition and block Romney from claiming a surprise win in the state.
But Scheffler told Yahoo News he didn't like the "direction" his fellow activists were taking in trying to establish which candidate to endorse—though he declined to go into specifics.
Most of the candidates under consideration are "very similar on the issues," he told Yahoo News. "To endorse one candidate over another just causes chaos and division. And I'm not sure voters like being told what to do."
Indeed, amid rumors the ad hoc conservative coalition is considering endorsing Gingrich, Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government, a mysterious group that has been distributing fliers reminding voters of the former lawmaker's failed marriages, sent a letter to The Family Leader's Bob Vander Plaats saying a Gingrich endorsement would be "not acceptable" to Christians.
"It is by now public knowledge that Mr. Gingrich has been unfaithful to two of his previous spouses, even delivering divorce papers to one as she lay in the hospital from a condition surrounding her cancer," the letter to Vander Plaats read. "We pray that marriage truly does matter as much as you represent, and not as little as it has meant to the candidates you have supported in the past."
Gingrich has said little about the attacks on his personal life in recent days. But his campaign recently unveiled a page on his 2012 website "answering the attacks" about his previous marital troubles.
"Newt has been honest and forthright about the fact that he has had moments in his life that he regrets, that he has had to seek reconciliation, and go to God for forgiveness," the site says, adding that Gingrich and his wife, Callista, have a "very strong marriage."
"Newt believes that by continuing to be honest and forthright about his past failings, voters will come to understand the man that he is now and conclude they can trust him to represent the American people in the White House," the web site contends.
But some conservatives continue to argue that Gingrich should do more to prove that he's truly sorry about his past mistakes. Richard Land, head of policy for the Southern Baptist Convention, has argued repeatedly that the former House speaker should deliver a major speech about previous shortcomings as husband to win over skeptical social conservatives. Land renewed that appeal in a public letter to Gingrich published Wednesday.
"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. 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," Land wrote. "As you prepare that speech, you should picture in your mind a 40-something evangelical married woman whose 40-something sister just had her heart broken by an evangelical husband who has just filed for divorce, having previously promised in church, before God, his wife and 'these assembled witnesses' to 'love, honor and cherish until death us do part.'"
Land's advice is based on his own informal polling of evangelicals over the last year. In those surveys, he found more men than women believed Gingrich's message of regret. According to Land, just one-third of evangelical women he polled in roughly 200 informal focus groups over the last three years said they were willing to "trust" Gingrich in light of his infidelities and failed marriages.
Gingrich's "polling has got to be showing them the same things I am seeing," Land told Yahoo News in an interview. "There's a reservoir of voters, especially women, who agree with him on issues and would like to vote for him but are still uncomfortable with whether he has really changed . . . . Interviews are one thing, God's forgiveness is another thing. But he is asking us to trust him with the presidency. He is asking us for an extraordinary degree of trust. Given his past, that's going to take an extraordinary effort, particularly for evangelical women."
In "any other election year," Land says social conservatives might not be willing to give a pass to Gingrich. But amid voter concerns about the economy and the desire among Republican voters to defeat President Obama, he says values voters could be willing to overlook Gingrich's past if the former speaker "makes it crystal clear he's learned his lesson" and vows there will be "no moral scandal" in his administration.
"We've never elected a twice-divorced president before," Land told Yahoo News. "But we've never had times quite like this."