Linda Warner acknowledges Newt Gingrich has some “baggage” and can be “pugnacious.”
She also thinks he has the best chance of beating President Barack Obama, and that trumps any concerns she has about whether Gingrich’s marital infidelity should disqualify him from becoming the standard-bearer of the party of family values.
“He has shown so well in the debates,” said Warner, 52, a physics teacher who backed Ron Paul in the 2008 Iowa caucuses.
That’s not the conclusion drawn by Philip Fisher, who said Gingrich’s three marriages and the extramarital affair he had with his current wife, Callista, hurt his chances to become president -- while also potentially signaling ethical weakness.
“Cheating on your wife, that I have a problem with,” said Fisher, 41, a technical project coordinator who is leaning toward supporting Mitt Romney. “If you’re willing to cross that moral line, that leads you to a gray area and realistically that’s why I’m afraid that he’s not electable.”
How those crosscurrents play out over the next three weeks will help determine whether the former U.S. House speaker from Georgia keeps his lead in Iowa, the state that starts the Republican nomination voting with its Jan. 3 caucuses.
Warner and Fisher sat across from each other at a conference room table last week in a focus group that Bloomberg News convened of nine Republicans, all evangelical Christians who plan to participate in the caucuses. Three of the voters are leaning toward Gingrich, five are gravitating toward other candidates, and one is undecided.
The discussion offered insight into potential vulnerabilities for Gingrich among a critical group of voters. In the 2008 Republican caucuses, exit polls showed 60 percent who attended described themselves as born-again or evangelicals.
Those who have already lined up behind Gingrich “are focused intensely on winning,” said J. Ann Selzer, who moderated the session and conducts polling for Bloomberg News and for the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll. “His past is old news and does not disqualify him from moving the country forward, which they are confident he can do.”
“There’s a lot of negative things about him, but I think he understands our constitution,” said Gina McNair, a small business owner who supported former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in 2008. “He understands how this government runs. I think he’s highly intelligent.”
It’s an Issue
For those still mulling their options, it is an issue that is shaping their decision. When Selzer asked the group whether they think Gingrich believes in strong “family values,” only McNair’s hand immediately went up.
Chad Brown, 33, a manager at the Des Moines airport who frequently sees the candidates as they pass through the state, said he also worries about Gingrich’s unpredictable nature and past family issues.
“Our candidate shouldn’t be roped into talking about personal situations, mores,” said Brown, who is leaning toward Romney. “The candidate with the least baggage is going to get that message out.”
Fisher said he recently received a phone call from someone presenting themselves as a pollster asking whether it would affect his vote if he knew that Gingrich was having an affair at the time while he was overseeing the House’s impeachment of former President Bill Clinton because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It’s unknown who paid for the poll.
Romney Raises Issue
The Romney campaign has subtly tried to raise questions about Gingrich’s values, frequently pointing out that the former Massachusetts governor has been married for 42 years.
During a Dec. 7 visit to Iowa, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also drew implicit distinctions on the issue of character between Romney and Gingrich.
Christie, who has endorsed Romney, told a voter who said she was still undecided to ask herself, “Is this the kind of person who is always going to make me proud in the Oval Office?” or do something that would “make me ashamed.”
Focus group voters drawn to Gingrich are backing him because they view him as the strongest candidate in the field and they are willing to overlook his past indiscretions.
President Not Pastor
“I’m not asking this man to be my pastor,” said Jaime Hansen, 32, who didn’t caucus in 2008. “I’m asking him to be my president, and we all have failures in life and he’s admitted that.”
Electability is the central requirement for Hansen.
“Yes, we all want somebody with moral values,” she said. “Yes we want somebody with good family values. But we really want somebody who is going to beat Obama. We want somebody who can stand strong against him.”
McNair said one thing she likes about Gingrich is that she doesn’t expect any surprises.
“With Newt, it’s like his dirty laundry has been aired,” said McNair, 52. “There’s nothing new to be out there.”
Gingrich was asked at a Dec. 10 debate in Iowa about his three marriages, including to his current wife with whom he had an extramarital affair while still wed to his second wife. He said his personal life should be viewed in its entirety, a position he’s taken in interviews with evangelical radio talk show hosts and others for the past year as he laid the groundwork for his candidacy.
“I’ve made mistakes at times,” he said. “I’ve had to go to God for forgiveness. I’ve had to seek reconciliation. But I’m also a 68-year-old grandfather. I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I’m a person they can trust.”
At the debate, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who needs to cut into Gingrich’s social conservative support if he is to gain ground in Iowa, was not ready to forgive.
“If you cheat on your wife, you’ll cheat on your business partner,” Perry said when asked whether infidelity should disqualify someone for the presidency.
As he campaigns, Gingrich often has his wife at his side. He also frequently mentions how they have been married more than a decade and how his grandchildren are his best debate coaches.
The day after the debate in Iowa, Gingrich and his wife attended Catholic mass in downtown Des Moines. Gingrich, who was raised a Lutheran and became a Southern Baptist while in Georgia, converted to his wife’s Catholic faith about two years ago.
He often talks about the importance of faith in his life, as he tries to address any suspicions about his past. In Iowa, he helped obtain seed money for a campaign to oust three state Supreme Court justices who had ruled in favor of gay marriage.
Still, focus group participant Amanda McCluer, 22, said she has concerns about Gingrich’s past infidelity.
“It is bothersome,” said McCluer, who is leaning toward supporting former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. “You want to make sure they’re a moral person in their own home, so that when they get to the office they do things that they say they’re going to do.”
Carrie Davis, 38, who is leaning toward supporting Paul, said she is disappointed that Gingrich had an affair, although her bigger concern is how it could hurt his electability.
“I don’t like it, but it happens,” she said. “My concern is to get Obama out at any cost and, if there’s a chance that that could be an issue, that’s one of the things that would hold me off of him.”
She said she also can’t get past Gingrich’s lengthy career in Washington. He was elected to the House in 1978 and resigned his seat and the speakership in 1998 after an ethics investigation that led to House reprimand and Republican losses in the midterm elections.
“I just kind of have that dirty politician feeling,” she said. “He’s been in it for so long. He knows the ins and outs. He’s dealt with the lobbyists.”
And she worries about his temperament.
“I’m just afraid that that’s going to shine badly on the conservative side of things and then Obama will slide through,” she said.
McNair said the issue of the economy is trumping family values in this presidential campaign season.
“I think we are so far in debt and we have printed so much money that maybe those issues aren’t as important this time,” she said. “This time they don’t even enter importance for me.”
Focus group participant Chad Whitaker, 41, a small business owner, said he is leaning toward supporting Romney, even though he’s not very excited about him.
“He’s got the least baggage, but actually he’s probably fourth or fifth on my list,” he said.
Chad Workman, 39, a railroad safety manager, said he has been amazed to see such a longtime Washington political figure as Gingrich build support among Tea Party activists.
“It’s a complete contradiction in my mind,” he said.