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Cain's backers warily consider Gingrich

Republicans who don't want to vote for Mitt Romney had rallied behind the Atlanta businessman, but his campaign has been rocked by accusations of an affair. And the former House speaker has a marital track record of his own.

November 29, 2011|By Paul West and Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times
  • Republican Herman Cain said he was assessing the future of his candidacy after allegations of an extramarital affair.
Republican Herman Cain said he was assessing the future of his candidacy… (Bill Pugliano, Getty Images )

Reporting from Des Moines and Los Angeles —  

Herman Cain's latest presidential campaign implosion has put some of the Republican Party's most active voters in a distinctly uncomfortable position: deciding whether to abandon an accused adulterer to side with an admitted adulterer.

Even before Monday's allegation by an Atlanta businesswoman that she and Cain had a 13-year affair, the GOP contest was moving toward a two-man race between steady front-runner Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the latest candidate to catch the fancy of the anti-Romney forces. That movement now is expected to hasten.

Cain told backers Tuesday that he was "reassessing" his candidacy in light of the newest accusations, which follow allegations that he sexually harassed several women in the 1990s. His campaign offered no clue as to when he might come to a decision about his future.

In Iowa, where voting in the 2012 contest will begin in just over a month, an alternative to Romney has been intensely sought by the potent bloc of evangelical voters, who remain suspicious of his Mormon faith and his past support for abortion rights and gay rights. Many are throwing their support to Gingrich despite his history of extramarital affairs and two divorces.

"Newt's got the best shot of heading Romney off at the pass," said Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition and the state's Republican national committeeman.

Evangelical voters are expected to cast about half the votes in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. Social conservatives will also play a dominant role in the South Carolina primary on Jan 21. If Gingrich were to win Iowa, "it'll be Gingrich and Romney" in South Carolina, predicted Warren Tompkins, an unaligned GOP strategist in Columbia, S.C.

Gingrich has vaulted into the top tier on the basis of his performance in televised debates, which have largely driven Republican voter preferences this year. His grasp of government policy and international affairs, after nearly 40 years in politics, have given him an edge over Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Cain, an Atlanta businessman, both of whom have stumbled over foreign policy and other issues in debates.

But an indication of discomfort in some quarters over Gingrich's rise came Tuesday when a new attack on the former House speaker surfaced online from a group calling itself Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government.

The anonymous attack on the group's website said that Gingrich was "not an acceptable choice among Christians." It also stated that Gingrich had been "unfaithful to two of his previous spouses."

The attack was timed to coincide with an expected endorsement announcement by the Family Leader, a group headed by Bob Vander Plaats, an unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate who is popular with many religious conservatives.

Scheffler, who is neutral in the presidential race, said Gingrich may not have put his moral failings "completely behind him." But he said that many pastors in the state "have accepted the premise that he's asked God's forgiveness."

Gingrich's personal history isn't "near the problem it once was. He's explained it enough times," added Scheffler, who met privately with Gingrich about a year ago, along with about 20 pastors, for a detailed discussion of the matter.

Larry Morris, 61, an evangelical Christian from West Des Moines, said he recently decided to support Gingrich after concluding that he had "truly repented" and been forgiven. "We are told and we believe that when we repent God remembers our sins no more," he said.

The former Georgia congressman has also benefited from the persistent wariness toward Romney's Mormon faith. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that white evangelical Protestants were more likely than most Americans to view Mormonism as a non-Christian religion; those same voters are also less likely to back Romney for the nomination, the poll found.

As his caucus prospects brighten, Gingrich has also been criticized by social conservatives over his antiabortion views (he would grant exceptions in cases of rape and incest and when the mother's life is in danger) and past support for federally funded embryonic stem cell research.

"Newt is famous for being all over the board," Cary Gordon, an influential pastor from Sioux City, Iowa, told the Des Moines Register. "He is admirable in many ways, but I won't back him. I don't trust him."

Cain, for his part, told senior staff members in a Tuesday conference call that he was assessing whether the affair allegations "create too much of a cloud" for his campaign to continue.

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