January 21st, 2012
09:53 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com
(CNN) – If there were any doubts that Newt Gingrich, a thrice-married convert to Catholicism, could connect with the evangelical voters who make up the Republican Party base, Saturday’s South Carolina primary put them to rest, with the former House Speaker winning twice as many evangelical votes as anyone else in the race.
Evangelical Christians made up two-thirds of the South Carolina electorate on Saturday, and Gingrich took 44% of their votes, according to CNN’s exit poll.
Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, who rode evangelical support to victory in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses earlier this month, each got 21% of the evangelical vote in South Carolina.
Gingrich got roughly the same share of the South Carolina evangelical vote as Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, did four years ago.
The former House speaker campaigned vigorously among evangelicals in the Palmetto State, talking about “values” issues and speaking to and holding conference calls with hundreds of evangelical pastors.
“Whatever his personal values may be, he certainly talked effectively and cogently to the kinds of issues that evangelicals care about,” said John Green, an expert in religion and politics at the University of Akron.
“Gingrich had a very intensive campaign mentioning social issues, less as policy matter than as test of the broader ideology of candidates,” Green said.
An accusation last week from Gingrich’s second wife that he asked for an “open marriage” raised questions about how much so-called “values voters” would support him.
“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.”
Last weekend, a group of conservative Christian leaders – evangelicals, mostly – reached consensus around supporting Santorum, but many experts said the development came to late to seriously influence the race.
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