Two days before Herman Cain dropped out of the presidential race, one of his top Iowa supporters, Charlie Gruschow, decided that “maybe Newt is an alternative.”
Gruschow, the founder of the Des Moines Tea Party, met with Gingrich and grilled him on such issues as abortion, immigration, and the appointment of conservative judges. “He is a man of tremendous knowledge of the Constitution,” Gruschow concluded.
There was just one problem: Gingrich’s messy personal life. “It’s a concern, honestly it is. That’s what I struggled with. He’s asked to be forgiven. He’s changed his life, and I believe in forgiveness. I think he’s matured some.”
When viewed through Washington’s scandalmongering culture, Gingrich is a politician with a past, guilty of policy infidelity as well as the marital kind. But in interviews across Iowa, where the upcoming caucuses could provide rocket fuel for his candidacy, a starkly different picture emerges, one less rooted in the mistakes and meanderings of the ’90s.
Many Republicans view Gingrich’s tenure as House speaker not as a time of turmoil and ethics charges but as time served in the trenches of conservative warfare. What the pundits recall as a failure that ended with his resignation, conservatives see as fighting the good fight during the Clinton administration.
Craig Edmondson, a 52-year-old educational consultant attending a Ron Paul event, had good things to say about Gingrich, praising “his patriotic attitudes, his experience in the political field. Our country,” he added, “needs to return to more Christian ethics.”
Which led to a question about certain unethical behavior. “I’ve moved past it. Judge him more on how he’s been recently,” Edmondson said. “I think he knows Washington; he appears to know how to get things done.” (By contrast, Edmondson said he doesn’t “trust” Mitt Romney: “He’s not real honest, the way he bounces back and forth and follows what’s popular.”)
Sondra Ziegler, a 39-year-old volunteer, also gives Newt a pass for past affairs. “I feel like he’s made peace with all that,” she says. “I feel he’s repented. People are willing to give him more latitiude than they do some of the other candidates because they understand his intellect.”
That observation may hold the key to Gingrich’s recent surge. As the leader of the 1994 Republican revolution and positioned as a big-idea man for the party, he has far less to prove than a national newcomer like Rick Perry or Herman Cain.
“With Speaker Gingrich, he has been a constant presence in Iowa over the years,” says state Republican chairman Matthew Strawn. “He is not an unknown.”
Such familiarity insulates Gingrich from the kind of flip-flopping charges that have proved so corrosive for Romney. When Mitt changes his stance on health-care mandates, for instance, it’s seen as blatant opportunism. When Gingrich does it, many Republicans cut him slack as a thinker with evolving views—especially since he’s been out of office for 13 years and wasn’t maneuvering to try to win elections.
Gingrich could also be helped by a splintering of the evangelical vote that in 2008 coalesced around Mike Huckabee, who was running against Romney, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani. This time around, says Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Christian conservative group Family Leader, most of the candidates are “speaking soundly on life, marriage, and things near and dear to our hearts.”
Iowa conservative leaders say economic concerns have moved to the forefront, muting talk of social issues, which have never been Gingrich’s strength. Strawn says candidates simply have to pass a minimum threshold: “You’re pro-life, you’re pro-traditional marriage: now I want to know what you’re going to do about creating jobs.”
Steve Deace, whose talk-radio show is based in Des Moines, was nothing if not skeptical of the ex-congressman. “Gingrich has a lot of baggage, and I say this as someone who likes Newt and respects him,” said Deace, clad in a flannel shirt as he prepared to go on the air. “I’ve spent time ripping him for his big comfy couch incident with Nancy Pelosi”—the 2008 commercial in which they inveighed against climate change.
But Deace’s perspective began to change after he had dinner with Gingrich last year at Damon’s Sports Bar, where they talked about an election that wound up ousting three state judges who had approved same-sex marriage. Gingrich’s decision to become active in that campaign resonated with Iowa conservatives, says Deace.
He says most conservatives prefer Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum and that Gingrich still faces a “trust gap”: “It’s not just the marriages and global-warming ad and TARP support. People are wondering, ‘Is this someone who’s truly had a change of heart?’ The question is, does he have a moral center to filter that brilliance through?” But Gingrich remains “a lot of people’s second choice.”
At first glance, that seems at odds with Washington’s binary view of politics. Gingrich and Romney are far apart in style, temperament, and ideology, but in the heartland, where most voters don’t pore over policy positions, it seems perfectly natural to move to Newt if you sour on Mitt. And that, along with the implosion of several other candidates, helps explain why the Iowa caucuses are now Gingrich’s to lose.