Yet Gingrich may seem unlikely as their choice for leader.
The thrice-married Gingrich has acknowledged infidelities and other personal failings, and a recent Public Religion Research poll finds religious conservatives in overwhelming agreement that marital infidelity is a disqualifier for public office. Some pro-family groups and ministers in Iowa are advocating opposition to Gingrich due to his personal life. And his lagging rivals are beginning to attack him, though it’s still unclear how and whether they will use Gingrich’s personal history in their appeals to religious conservatives.
The collapse of ordained minister and strong social conservative Herman Cain's presidential hopes demonstrates the sensitivity these voters have to even unproven allegations.
And yet Gingrich's vote total grows. What’s happening?
First, what seems like hypocrisy to some is pragmatic politics to others. Religious conservatives consider the defeat of President Barack Obama job No. 1. True, the more reliable social conservatives running for president clearly lack what political consultants call Gingrich’s "baggage." But what these other Republicans also lack is the gravitas seen as necessary for a conservative candidate to beat President Obama.
Even his rivals admit Gingrich is presidential. His campaign stumbled badly at the start due to several damaging missteps, turning many likely Iowa voters cold to the Old Newt. But the New Newt's shining performance as a knowledgeable, skilled debater has melted this opposition.
Second, to religious conservative voters, Gingrich is usually “right” on their policy issues. Historically, this has at times been enough to sway their vote. In 1980, the divorced and non-religious Ronald Reagan heavily won the votes of religious conservatives over the pious incumbent, Jimmy Carter. Reagan was anti-abortion and pro school prayer. Carter was not.
And four years ago at about this time, Rev. Pat Robertson endorsed thrice-divorced GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, despite the former New York City mayor being pro-choice and pro-gay rights. The 9/11 hero ran strongly in the early polls and for a time looked like a sure winner. Robertson knew that if social conservatives abandon a GOP presidential candidate, they essentially concede the election to a more liberal Democrat.
Third, Gingrich has converted to Catholicism, confessed his sins and thus been forgiven. The notion of such redemption plays heavily in evangelical discourse. Past moral failings figured prominently in the 2000 cycle as well. Liberal and secular Americans ridiculed evangelical conservative support for George W. Bush, who had battled alcoholism and other personal demons into middle age. Yet the Texan was open about this history, and he credited his faith for a chance to be reborn. That story resonated with many evangelicals, who also believed that he was the best conservative hope to win back the White House.