DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich says he has sought God's forgiveness for his personal failings and hopes that evangelical voters take time to talk to him about his two divorces and his affair with the woman who is now his third wife.
His chances of winning the nomination of a party dominated by religious conservatives may depend on it.
"I think people have to look at me, ask tough questions, then render judgment," the former House speaker told The Associated Press on Monday during his first Iowa trip as a declared presidential candidate. "I have made mistakes in my life. I have had to go to God to ask for forgiveness and seek reconciliation."
"It would be easier in life to skip all this," he added. "But if citizenship requires these kinds of conversations, these conversations are worth having."
If enough of Iowa's religious conservatives hear Gingrich out, and decide his repentance is authentic, they could boost his chances of competing past the first few primary contests. But if Iowa's Republican values voters, who form the backbone of the leadoff nominating caucuses, reject Gingrich because of his history of personal flaws, his bid for political redemption could be cut short.
"He may be able to build that bridge with enough people, but it's not clear whether he will have them," said Bob Vander Plaats, a former candidate for governor who runs a socially conservative advocacy group. "If he can get people past his personal past, he has a shot. If they get hung up on it, he doesn't have a shot."
While every candidate in the GOP field has a policy issue or personality trait that doesn't sit well with conservatives, Gingrich's flaws may be most in conflict with the family values espoused by many Republicans in Iowa, where evangelical Christians are a particularly powerful plurality.
Unlike some of his rivals, Gingrich has made clear that, despite the obstacles presented by his personal failings, he'll play Iowa hard and seek to win the caucuses in hopes of getting enough momentum to win the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, the latter of which also is dominated by religious Republicans.
In the AP interview just days after launching a candidacy, Gingrich said he is expecting to have hundreds of conversations in Iowa about his past, starting this week as he travels deep into the state's Republican territory. A recent convert to Catholicism, he began a 17-city visit on Monday in Dubuque, a working-class eastern Iowa city filled with Catholics.
Iowa's politically astute GOP electorate doesn't usually shirk from asking politicians tough questions. Gingrich has acknowledged having an extramarital affair with a congressional aide, now his third wife, while married to his second wife — at the same time he was criticizing President Bill Clinton for his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Even before announcing his campaign last week, Gingrich had been trying to break through in Iowa with a message of contrition, but leaders in the state's evangelical movement say it's unclear whether that pitch is catching on. Gingrich also has visited Iowa with his wife of more than a decade, Callista, at his side to send a message that he is a family man committed to his marriage.
He has spoken at a ministerial conference in Des Moines for the past several years, and one attendee said Gingrich was particularly introspective about his personal life last year.
Monte Knudsen, an evangelical pastor from the small southeastern Iowa community of Mount Pleasant, said he was impressed by Gingrich's candor but thought the issues will make his candidacy a non-starter for a contingent of the faith community.
"It is admirable, but that doesn't mean I admire him," said Knudsen, a caucus-going Republican considering other candidates ahead of Gingrich. "I think it will be a difficult thing for him to overcome. It's not just one failure that he's had, but several."
Gingrich professed not to be worried about activists he can't reach. But he also said he's hoping that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's decision not to run would give him a shot at winning over caucus-goers who might have gravitated toward the onetime Baptist minister who won the 2008 caucuses on the strength of heavy support from evangelicals.
Christian conservatives may be more attracted to other Republicans with fewer flaws than Gingrich, like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Gingrich suggested that winning the support of top evangelical leaders in other early primary states and nationally known leaders could benefit him in Iowa.
"The more folks in South Carolina decide I'm legitimate, the more friends they email and call up here," Gingrich said.
Some Republicans argue that support from big names matters less than persuading actual voters.
"If he's able to make a compelling case to grassroots values voters in Iowa, I would think he would have just as much success in South Carolina," said Jim Dyke, a national Republican operative based in Charleston, S.C. "It means he's got a lot on the line in Iowa."