Infidelity, divorce, and Newt Gingrich: Can voters get past his record?

At a time when half of marriages end in divorce, it may be that GOP hopeful Newt Gingrich can overcome his checkered marital history of infidelity and divorce. Or not.

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    Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks at the CBS News/National Journal foreign policy debate at the Benjamin Johnson Arena, Saturday in Spartanburg, S.C.
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Ronald Reagan was America's only divorced president. And several men who occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – Bill Clinton perhaps most notably in contemporary times – were unfaithful to their spouses. 

But there’s only one candidate seeking the nation’s highest office this year who has both knocks against him: Republican Newt Gingrich. 

Mr. Gingrich’s opponents are bound to make an issue of it. Politico reported Tuesday that guests staying in a Des Moines hotel found a flier slipped under their doors from a group calling itself Christian Leaders in Government. It asked: “If Newt Gingrich can’t be faithful to his wife, how can we trust him to be faithful to conservative voters?”

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Anonymous slander campaigns aren’t a new thing, especially in contests in early caucus and primary states. True or not, they can pick up steam there, and groups like the as-yet-unidentifiable organization – or maybe individual – responsible for the Gingrich flier can do damage before anyone knows who is behind the effort. But in 2012, with voters concerned about a series of serious pocketbook issues, from jobs to taxes to health insurance, will they be swayed by the personal shortcomings of the candidates? And if they are, how does Gingrich address the matter in a thoughtful way that satisfies Americans?

If Gingrich were to secure the nomination – he is rivaling presumed front-runner Mitt Romney in recent national polls despite a financial and organizational disadvantage – he would surely have to discuss his past personal choices, say campaign watchers.

“He’s going to have to address it,” says David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale. “I think it will come up. It’s part of his narrative and his story, and he’s going to have to talk about it.” 

But Mr. Yepsen says voters aren’t likely to dwell on Gingrich’s past – though he is twice divorced, and left his first wife following her treatment for cancer. He left his second wife for a staff member who is now his third wife, Callista.

“People want to move on,” Yepsen says, from the politics of personal destruction. “We want solutions to the larger problems. I think that’s what’s attracting a lot of people to Newt Gingrich. He’s a thoughtful guy. He has ideas.”

Yepsen, who wrote about politics for the Des Moines Register for more than three decades, adds: “He’s the only candidate I’ve ever seen where audiences take notes.”

Not everyone agrees. Salon’s Joan Walsh outlines Gingrich’s flaws and foibles in a Tuesday column. She concludes: “The seemingly affable professor and author is a hothead with many political liabilities and almost as many enemies. He’s committed so many political and ethical transgressions that his baggage has baggage.”

Still, the thresholds of religion and race have been breached in recent political history: Americans have sent a Roman Catholic to the White House and an African-American. In an era when half of Americans get divorced, Gingrich might benefit from the new social norms.

Gingrich told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham last week he expects questions about his marriages and infidelity. He said he will respond by noting that he is happily married to Callista and that he has reconciled his behavior with God. 

“People have to look at me and decide. I’m a 68-year-old grandfather,” Gingrich said. “I learned a great deal in life. I think today I am prepared to be the kind of president the United States needs. And I think we need leadership that is capable of getting very large change to get us back to full employment, to balance the budget again, and to strengthen our national security. And I think if people decide that's true, the odds are very high that I will be the nominee and as nominee that I will defeat Barack Obama.”

A CNN/ORC survey released Monday indicates that voters are sampling what Gingrich is peddling. Mr. Romney leads the crowded Republican field with 24 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters. Gingrich is at 22 percent, and businessman Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are at 14 and 12 percent, respectively. Everyone else in the field is at or below 8 percent in the national poll.

A Public Policy Polling report released Monday, too, shows Gingrich ahead of Mr. Cain and Romney, 28 percent to Cain’s 25 percent and Romney’s 18 percent.

The challenge for Gingrich, then, is to find a lasting connection with social conservatives – in Iowa, in particular. A finish of first or second place there could catapult him into the top tier for next-stage contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and beyond. 

Marlys Popma, former executive director of the Iowa GOP and founder of Iowa Right to Life, calls Gingrich “the ideas man.” Ms. Popma, a five-cycle veteran of the presidential caucus process who is unaffiliated this year, says Gingrich communicates his proposals well with voters of varied backgrounds. She calls the Jan. 3 Iowa contest “the most open-ended caucus cycle I have experienced.”

“The big story in all this is the people of Iowa, social conservatives, have so many people to pick from,” she says. “I don’t think anybody is going to know what’s going to happen until the night of the caucuses.”

Monitor researcher Leigh Montgomery contributed to this story.

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