DES MOINES, Iowa-Money and a marriage pledge are late factors in the lead-up to Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus. The frontrunner here, Newt Gingrich, curried favor with Iowa's social conservatives by directing approximately $150,000 toward their 2010 campaign to oust Iowa Supreme Court justices who legalized same-sex marriage in the state. Now leaders of that campaign are weighing an endorsement in the presidential race.
On Monday, Gingrich supplied The Family Leader, an Iowa family values organization, with a statement on marriage, including a direct promise of personal fidelity in his own marriage, though he did not sign the group's "Marriage Vow."
Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, said a committee from his group plans to meet once again, following Thursday's Fox News Channel debate in Sioux City, to consider endorsing a Republican presidential candidate. The group will consider Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, and has already ruled out endorsing Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul or Mitt Romney (see "Elimination round," Nov. 23).
Gingrich's statement could remove a last hurdle to an endorsement from some of the same Iowa conservatives who helped Mike Huckabee to victory in the state in 2008. Yet, backing the twice-divorced Gingrich is sure to be controversial within elements of Iowa's social conservative bloc. The introduction to The Family Leader's Marriage Vow includes the statement: "We acknowledge and regret the widespread hypocrisy of many who defend marriage yet turn a blind eye toward the epidemic of infidelity and the anemic condition of marriages in their own communities."
On Monday, Vander Plaats released Gingrich's statement along with his own statement that Gingrich's response "affirmed our pledge"-but two Iowa pastors, Cary Gordon and Albert Calaway, released a statement of their own on Tuesday blasting Gingrich and urging him to sign the 14-point pledge encompassing marriage, family, and life issues.
"Our first desire would be a blanket signature," said Vander Plaats. "He prefers to put things in his own words. For me personally, I'm pleased to see the verbiage and the commitment [from Gingrich]. He's hit on a lot of the key themes."
Vander Plaats said he turned to Gingrich in 2010 as a "sideline adviser" and for assistance in finding donations for the campaign to unseat the judges who instituted same-sex marriage in a 2009 ruling. The nationally watched effort successfully unseated three justices in the 2010 election, a victory that helped cement Vander Plaats' role as a public face for social conservative causes in Iowa, where he has run for governor three times.
According to Vander Plaats, the Gingrich-facilitated contributions to the campaign to remove the judges were made before The Family Leader was founded as the umbrella organization for several like-minded Iowa groups. "There's no doubt that Speaker Gingrich deserves credit, as do others," Vander Plaats said. "I think Iowans appreciate his efforts."
Vander Plaats said he leaned on the advisory relationship with Gingrich because there's "none better" on the historical, constitutional issues that came into play during the campaign. "Newt was very influential in organizing what I'd call some seed money," Vander Plaats said. "I see it as a very positive thing."
A University of Iowa poll released Monday shows Gingrich leading in the first-in-the-nation caucus state with 29.8 percent to Romney's 20.3 percent. Differing from other recent polls, Paul is in third at 10.7 percent, while Bachmann and Perry are next at 8.5 and 8.2 percent, respectively. Santorum continues to seek traction at 5.3 percent.
Vander Plaats is committed to defeating Romney, but has said any endorsement will not be based on polls. Of the four candidates under consideration, only Gingrich is competing head-to-head with Romney in current national and early state polling. Thursday's debate, just 10 days before Christmas, will be one of the last looks at the GOP candidates for many Iowans until the Jan. 3 caucus.