Are Iowa’s True Believers Ready to Forgive Newt Gingrich’s Sins?

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Richard Shiro / AP

GOP candidate for president, Newt Gingrich, Nov. 30, 2011, in South Carolina.

Newt Gingrich drips with disdain for sound-bite politics, but last week he authored perhaps the best bumper sticker of the Republican primary race. “I don’t claim to be the perfect candidate,” he said. “I just claim to be a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney and a lot more electable than anyone else.”

No one will argue with the pitch-perfect statement’s self-deprecating preface. The irony of Gingrich’s climb to the top of GOP polls–he’s leading in Iowa according to the latest survey from the vaunted Des Moines Register— is that in a nominating fight that was supposed to gauge which candidate hewed closest to party doctrine, the list of Gingrich’s apostasies is longer than any in the field.

A withering web video cut this week by Ron Paul’s team compiled the former House Speaker’s greatest hits: backing an individual health insurance mandate, teaming up with Nancy Pelosi to combat climate change, cashing checks from Freddie Mac, decrying Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint as “right-wing social engineering.” The video is two-and-a-half minutes long.

All of which is to say Gingrich’s contention that he’s more conservative than Mitt Romney is up for debate. But there’s no question that a combination of his forthright penance and the base’s lingering distrust for Romney is helping to nudge Iowa’s legions of social conservatives toward embracing the twice-divorced Gingrich as their pick in the state’s pivotal Jan. 3 caucuses.

Gingrich, a converted Catholic, has done his part by courting activist groups assiduously and speaking openly about his past transgressions and deepening faith. “There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate,” Gingrich said early in his candidacy in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. “I found that I felt compelled to seek God’s forgiveness. Not God’s understanding, but God’s forgiveness.”

Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the Family Leader, an influential Iowa social-conservative organization, says groups like his are taking a hard look at Gingrich and have come away impressed. After a forum last month at which candidates discussed their faith, Vander Plaats, in consultation with his organization’s board, whittled the list of candidates the Family Leader may support to four: Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Gingrich.

“He is articulating a very Christian-historical worldview. People are seeing he’s had a life transformation,” Vander Plaats says of Gingrich. “The second thing he’s got going for him is some people believe Newt is the best prepared to lead. And three is that he looks like the one with the best shot at being the alternative to Romney and defeating Romney. Believe me, conservatives want an alternative to Romney. They don’t trust him.”

In large part, Gingrich’s rise is the starkest sign of the triumph of pragmatism over ideological purity, even in the most devout corners of the conservative base, and in a cycle when Tea Party fervor was supposed to torpedo GOP moderates. Conservatives are casting for a candidate whom they can envision playing the part of President, and they see in Gingrich a battle-scarred veteran whose mettle as a party standard-bearer was proven in the 1990s. “Rock-solid Christians are giving him the benefit of the doubt,” Vander Plaats says. “The thing that’s going for him is we live in such an environment today, where the world dynamics as so uncertain, and Washington is so broken, that some people believe Newt is the best prepared by far to take on an environment like this.”

The critical social-conservative bloc isn’t ready to line up behind Gingrich’s surging candidacy quite yet–an anonymous group that calls itself Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government popped up recently, penning a missive urging Vander Plaats not to endorse Gingrich and creating a web video that catalogues Gingrich’s past apostasies. Many others are aware of the merits of consensus, which propelled Mike Huckabee past Romney four years ago. So three days before Thanksgiving, a group of evangelical leaders met privately in a Des Moines office building to discuss throwing their support en masse to a single candidate. No decision was made, but the participants stressed the importance of coalescing around an alternative to Romney.

Gingrich has a couple of factors working in his favor, not least the heavy debate schedule that helped revive his candidacy. Unlike 2008, the race lacks a dominant social-conservative; the candidates with the bona fides — including Bachmann and Santorum — are dogged by questions about their depth and electability, respectively. And the candidates who became front-runners only to embarrass their supporters have Republicans hungering for a figurehead who can outmaneuver Obama in debates. Gingrich’s grandiloquence has convinced many voters that he’s their guy in this regard.

The former House Speaker also has the benefit of being the man of the moment when the moment is right. With just 32 days until the Iowa caucuses, there may not be time for a new front-runner to catch on. “Throughout the summer, people were shopping candidates,” says Linda Upmeyer, the state’s House Majority Leader and a Gingrich supporter who held her faith in his campaign through the candidate’s dismal summer.  “Now it’s time to settle.”