GOP contenders face tough questions about policies, personal lives

Gingrich, Romney, Daniels, Pawlenty, and other Republican presidential hopefuls face tough questions about past policy positions and their personal lives. Will Americans give them a break?

William B. Plowman/NBC News/AP
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is interviewed on NBC's 'Meet the Press' in Washington Sunday. Gingrich said he is very serious about seeking the presidency, but laughed off any suggestion that he could end up with the Republican Party's vice presidential nomination next year.

Nine months may seem like a long time if you’re pregnant. But in terms of the gestation period for presidential campaigns, it means “time to hustle” before the first party primaries.

In a mere nine months, voters will begin the process of choosing major party nominees. We already know one: Barack Obama (barring unforeseen events), who has no known Democratic challengers.

Mike Huckabee has just announced his noncampaign on the GOP side. That leaves a half dozen or so Republicans seen to be seriously angling for the nomination. (And, among pundits, having a serious shot at the prize.)

For one thing, they’ll try to fill the Huckabee void among socially conservative Republicans, particularly evangelical Christians – strong supporters of the former Southern Baptist preacher turned broadcaster.

"His voters are very independent and they're going to go where they believe that America needs to go both in conservative and spiritual values," Newt Gingrich said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." ''Governor Huckabee is going to remain a very important figure in the conservative movement, and I suspect that he's going to have a role to play for years to come."

Translation: Whomever Mr. Huckabee throws his support to – assuming he doesn’t stay on the sidelines entirely – will have a huge advantage among socially conservative Republicans. And that means just about every primary voter and caucus-goer, including most tea partyers.

Appearing with Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace, Huckabee said five candidates share "similar" views to his – Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, and Michele Bachmann – who "very clearly might benefit" from his decision "because of their strong positions on issues like life and on traditional marriage."

What, no Mitt Romney?

Huckabee has been particularly critical of “RomneyCare” – the statewide health-care insurance plan with its individual mandate that Mr. Romney launched when he was governor of Massachusetts.

I certainly think that's going to be his challenge," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Sunday on ABC News "This Week."

"The interesting thing was he was one of the only governors that showed courage when it came to dealing with health care," Governor Haley said. "I think that we are looking for a leader that's willing to, one, make courageous stands, take strong policy decisions, but two, also admit when a mistake was made."

Aside from health care, Romney used to be far more liberal moderate on issues like gay rights, abortion, and gun control.

But Romney isn’t the only one with a past that could present problems.

Mr. Pawlenty felt the need to admit he was “wrong” on climate change and a cap-and-trade approach to stemming global warming.

Mr. Gingrich, too, has had to walk back his previous position on climate change – which was that it existed, was caused by human activities, and needed serious addressing.

But that’s not Gingrich’s most serious challenge. Although he’s been married to the same woman for 11 years now, there were two marriages before that plus at least one acknowledged adulterous affair.

“Every American has the right to ask these questions,” he said Sunday on NBC’s "Meet the Press." “I have made mistakes in my life. I have had to go to God for forgiveness and to seek reconciliation. And I ask them to look at who I am today."

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has had an unusual personal life as well – married to the same woman a second time after she had left him (and their four daughters) to marry another man.

But as Governor Daniels says, "If you like happy endings, you'll love our story."

Still, as presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told The New York Times, "character matters."

"We think about that now in choosing somebody for office,” she said. “Their relationships with their wives, their families, the choices they've made are all a clue to the kind of person they are – and are probably fair game."

There’s another way of looking at the “character” issue as it applies to personal behavior.

“I think it's possible that this year, because of the special nature of the times – we live through unprecedented and ongoing crises in the economy and foreign policy – the American people may be less interested in the personal stories, foibles and family situations of those running for president than in the past,” writes Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. “I think Americans right now, but particularly with the current crises, will be generally inclined to give pretty much everyone a break.”

Several prominent Republicans can only hope so.

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