January 20th, 2012
01:13 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
Not so fast, say some evangelical leaders and experts.
Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s second ex-wife, Marianne, made the “open marriage” allegation in an interview that aired Thursday night on ABC News.
But because of political circumstances and the way Gingrich parried a question about the accusation during Thursday’s CNN debate, the episode may cause relatively little fallout among evangelical voters, who are expected to make up about 60% of the vote in Saturday’s South Carolina primary.
Some say the drama may even help Gingrich among such voters.
“To a degree, it will give [evangelical voters] pause, but there’s a much more insatiable appetite to defeat President Obama,” said David Brody, chief political correspondent at CBN News at the Christian Broadcasting Network.
“Gingrich has never claimed to be a patron saint,” Brody said. “People have known for years about Gingrich’s marriage issues. In a way, his well-known history of troubled marriage works for him here.”
CNN moderator John King opened Thursday’s debate in Charleston, South Carolina, by asking Gingrich about whether he would like to respond to the allegation.
“No,” Gingrich responded to mounting applause, “but I will.”
"To take an ex-wife and make it, two days before the primary, a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine," Gingrich went on, calling the allegation “false” and provoking a standing ovation from the debate audience.
It’s a safe bet that evangelical Republicans were among those clapping.
“The press is so unpopular with Republican voters that his answer helps him in the short term - it was a tactically brilliant answer,” said Richard Land, the public policy chief for the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest evangelical denomination.
“Whether it will work strategically is another question,” Land said.
The Christian Broadcasting Network’s Brody said that Gingrich’s response to the “open marriage” question “took a weakness and turned it into a strength.”
“Evangelicals have been bashed by the media for decades, so this is a common bond he’s able to play up with them,” he said. “He was able to develop a kinship with evangelicals over this last night.”
Brody said that Gingrich has spent lots of time on the campaign trail discussing stances that matter to evangelicals, like opposition to abortion and confronting radical Islam.
Land said the allegation from Gingrich’s ex-wife may hurt the candidate in the long run because it reminds voters that he was seeing his current wife, Callista, while married to his second wife.
Gingrich has admitted to his affair with Callista, whom he married in 2000.
“This reminds people that Callista is the other woman,” Land said, “and that the other woman could become the first lady.”
Gingrich’s evangelical backers have not shied away from discussing his past marital problems. In a conference call with evangelicals last week, Gingrich spoke extensively about his failed marriages.
“We're all quite aware that there was a season in Speaker Gingrich’s life in which his lifestyle was unacceptable,” Jim Garlow, a prominent evangelical pastor who was on last week’s call, said in an e-mail message. “He does not defend it. Nor would any evangelical. Nor do I.”
“He is as flawed as King David in the Old Testament,” wrote Garlow, who helped lead the campaign to ban gay marriage in California in 2008. “However, that did not keep God from restoring King David and using him after his moral failures, for the benefit of the entire nation.”
Still, even before this week’s allegation from his ex-wife, Gingrich’s personal baggage had given many evangelicals pause.
“Forgiveness is not the issue here, trust is the issue,” Land said. “Redemption is something that’s in our code as evangelicals, but trusting someone with the presidency is something entirely different.”
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