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Gingrich woos evangelicals as he eyes presidential bid

In recent years, the twice-divorced former GOP leader has met often with conservative pastors, expressing contrition for his personal history and providing financial and strategic support for their causes, most notably their fight against same-sex marriage.

March 03, 2011|By Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold, Washington Bureau

None of Gingrich's meetings with religious leaders is more important or occurs with greater frequency than those in Iowa, the first state to choose delegates to the presidential nominating conventions. Gingrich is expected to travel to Iowa at least twice this month to address religious groups.

About 60% of Iowa caucus voters describe themselves as evangelical Christians. Their prominence helped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, win the GOP caucuses there in 2008.

This year, several potential presidential candidates are vying for attention among religious conservatives. But only Gingrich was instrumental in the most heralded event of recent Christian political activism: The effort last fall to remove the Iowa judges.

"It wouldn't have happened without Newt," said David Lane, executive director of Iowa for Freedom, the organization that led the campaign. "Newt provided strategic advice and arranged the initial seed money, about $200,000, which is what got everything started."

The money came from an anonymous donor whose contribution was arranged by Gingrich, Lane said.

Robert L. Vander Plaats, chief spokesman for the judicial campaign, said the former speaker provided key strategic advice.

He said Gingrich had won over pastors in the state with his "open and transparent" approach.

"Does the faith community have high standards? You bet," said Vander Plaats, who was Huckabee's state chairman in 2008. "But do we also understand that we all fall short of the standards? Yes, we do."

Gingrich says his recent outreach to Christian conservatives has built on an existing network.

In October, more than 40 prominent pastors came to Virginia for a private lunch with Gingrich at Liberty University, the Christian college founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. Last month, Gingrich met with 10 prominent clerics at a gathering organized by Richard G. Lee, founding pastor of First Redeemer Church in the Atlanta area. Lee said Gingrich impressed the group with his leadership proposals and his repentance.

Gingrich has had similar meetings in the key electoral states of South Carolina, Florida and New Hampshire, where he met late last year with nearly 100 pastors.

Although Gingrich has been forthcoming about his personal conduct in private conversations, he can become testy when pressed on the issue publicly. At the University of Pennsylvania last month, a Democratic student activist asked him to square his marital record with his goal of putting the nation on a higher moral plane.

"I hope you feel better about yourself," Gingrich responded. "I will be totally candid: I've had a life which, on occasion, has had problems. I believe in a forgiving God. … If the primary concern of the American people is my past, my candidacy would be irrelevant."

Gingrich said in an interview that he had already made "clear and definitive" admissions about his history.

"In the end, people will have to look at the totality of my life," he said.

Some prominent evangelical leaders said Gingrich still had significant work to do.

"There's a feeling that Newt understands how important social conservatives are to winning the coalition, but that it's our issues that are on the back of the bus when it comes to what he would do as president," Land said. "The speaker is going to have to convince people on that."

Julie Mianecki in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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