He leads most polls of Republicans for the 2008 presidential primaries, but former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani nevertheless has had the strength of his evangelical support questioned in part because of his three marriages and his "friendship" with now-wife Judith Nathan, while he was still married to Donna Hanover.
That's not so much the case, though, for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who currently enjoys a reputation as the GOP's "ideas" man, with many hoping he will decide to run for president next year.
Among the chief issues Gingrich hits upon these days are also the foundation for his book released in October, Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in Our Nation's History and Future. These social and faith issues in his speeches draw robust applause, undoubtedly from a strong Christian presence in his audiences.
But like Giuliani, Gingrich's unfaithfulness to at least one of his former wives is commonly known. Both of their personal backgrounds cause unease among social conservatives, yet apparently Gingrich is excused a bit more because of his conservatism on abortion, same-sex marriage, and other family issues, which Giuliani lacks.
Last week Dr. James Dobson, head of the "Focus on the Family" ministry (and host of its radio broadcast) and one of the evangelicals' respected leaders, took a run at getting Gingrich on the record about his adultery. The result was not sobbing contrition, but for a power figure with the requisite ego for success in American politics, Gingrich's answers were noticeably remorseful -- and about as humble as you could expect someone like him to get.
"That's a very painful topic," Gingrich told Dobson on Friday's radio program. "And I confess that directly to you. It has some elements that I'm not in any way proud of."
Dobson informed his audience that he had an earlier conversation with the former speaker in which he expressed "great anguish" over his own behavior. The Christian psychologist seemed to want to extract similar emotion from Gingrich on the air, but instead got a composed admission marked by a denial that it had any equivalency with the actions of President Clinton towards former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
"The president of the United States got in trouble for committing a felony in front of a sitting federal judge," Gingrich explained. "I drew a line in my mind that said, 'Even though I run the risk of being deeply embarrassed, and even though at a purely personal level I am not rendering judgment on another human being, as a leader of the government trying to uphold the rule of law, I have no choice except to move forward and say that you cannot accept...perjury in your highest officials.'"
Yet Dobson pressed him on the fact that his three marriages and extramarital affair -- "maybe more than one" (which Gingrich did not help clarify) -- had disappointed his supporters. Gingrich explained somewhat the circumstances surrounding the failure of his first two marriages, but also added there were elements in his life that he wanted to caution his children and grandchildren not to follow him on.
"There were time when I was praying and when I felt I was doing things that were wrong," Gingrich said. "But I was still doing them. I look back on those as periods of weakness and periods...that I'm not proud of."
Whether intentionally or not, it is there where Gingrich addressed the malady that every born-again Christian comprehends: that sin is the human sickness; guilt and death are the penalty; and confession, repentance and trust in Jesus Christ are the remedy. One no less than the Apostle Paul said as much, in Romans 7:23-25:
"But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God -- through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
Contrary to popular perception, realistic Christians don't expect perfection from their elected leaders. But recognition of past sins and regret over them could go a long way towards making Gingrich, should he choose to enter the race, the evangelicals' candidate for 2008. By the time fall comes around -- after a summer of John McCain, Mitt Romney and Giuliani relentlessly pounding the campaign trail -- conservatives might thirst for one of their own to finally enter the race.
And Gingrich's interview with Dobson last week may have taken a big issue off the table -- one that could remove the stumbling block he might have when compared to Giuliani.
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