Cover Story
Associated Press photo by Matt Rourke

Inside outsider

Campaign 2012 | Despite past infidelities and an establishment background, Newt Gingrich has pedaled his way to evangelical support, but Romney, Santorum, and Paul continue to press

Issue: "Tour d'America road rage," Feb. 11, 2012

TAMPA, Fla.-Rasmussen and Insider Advantage polls on Jan. 25 showed Mitt Romney retaking a comfortable lead in the Florida primary, but one statement seems undebatable: In the most volatile GOP presidential primary Tour D'America of modern times, no leader can rest comfortably.

One remarkable development in a race looking more like a demolition derby than a championship event: The candidate favored by a plurality of evangelicals has multiple adulteries and divorces in his past, anger management issues in his present, a flame-out in his one leadership job, and dire warnings on record from almost every leader who has worked with him. Yet in South Carolina nearly 44 percent of self-identified evangelicals voted for Newt Gingrich, and one early Florida poll had 35 percent of born-again Christians saying they supported Gingrich.

One reason is that Romney has left some evangelicals concerned about his taxes and management record, and others about his Mormon faith. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum was working hard to turn his support from some high-profile evangelicals into higher name recognition within Florida's big media markets, and Ron Paul's ardent supporters were trying to fan his bright flame of libertarian support into a grassfire.

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But the main reason why Gingrich keeps making comebacks is his performance in what has become a marathon of Republican presidential debates: 19 and counting. His pugnacious style and penchant for pithy applause lines put him in front of national polls in early December, but he cratered before Christmas as more voters became aware of his record. Then he surged again by verbally punching arrogant reporters. Gingrich's defining indignant answer may have come two days before the South Carolina primary, when CNN moderator John King asked about the former Speaker's unfaithfulness to his second wife. Gingrich said, "To take an ex-wife and make it ... a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine." The crowd went wild.

Gingrich is capitalizing on his debate successes by having Republican voters see him as President Barack Obama's worst debate nightmare. He said that if he wins the nomination he will challenge Obama to seven three-hour Lincoln-Douglas style debates that would include a timekeeper but no moderator. "He can use a teleprompter if he wants to," Gingrich told a Florida audience: "If you had to defend Obamacare, wouldn't you want to use a teleprompter?" Right now only three fall presidential debates are on the schedule, as has been standard in recent elections: They are set for Oct. 3, 16, and 22 in Colorado, New York, and Florida.

Gingrich's big South Carolina win helped him to garner enthusiastic and large crowds at his recent Florida rallies. With Gingrich admitting his infidelity to his first and second wives, many evangelicals view him as part of a saga of redemption. Though he does deny his second wife's contention that he asked for an "open marriage," he admits he committed adultery with Callista Gingrich, the woman who became his third wife, and says it was a mistake. That works for many Florida voters, including Elle Stenberg, 60, who recently sat on the hood of her Mercedes convertible trying to catch a glimpse of Gingrich during his appearance at the Tick Tock Restaurant in St. Petersburg. "I'm a preacher's daughter, and I'm pretty tough on morality," she said. "But people change. He's asked for forgiveness, and God is going to judge that."

Stenberg also highlighted another reason behind Gingrich's recent rise: She and others see Romney as the candidate of an "establishment" trying to push its preference down the throats of the rest. Gingrich's "enemies are the elites of Washington and that's good enough for me," said Stenberg, who works for a medical malpractice insurance company. "He is going to crack some heads, and the elites in Washington know it." Many perceive Gingrich that way despite his insider background in the House and as a lobbyist for the D.C. elite. Ken Connor, chairman of the conservative Center for a Just Society, said that because Gingrich has been out of office for so long, he is able to run an insurgent campaign that has attracted a large Tea Party following.

Romney has started to attack Gingrich's outsider image. His strategy was to aim his ire at Obama while appearing to remain above the GOP fray-but during the first Florida debate in Tampa, Romney, fresh off his loss in South Carolina, took the gloves off. He tagged Gingrich as "an influence peddler in Washington" who had to "resign in disgrace" as House speaker: "We can't possibly retake the White House if the nominee is a person who was working with the chief lobbyist for Freddie Mac." Romney was referring to Gingrich's paid consulting gig for the government-backed organization that played a large role in the nation's housing crisis, but Gingrich says he served as a Freddie Mac "historian," not a lobbyist.

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