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Gingrich woos evangelicals as he eyes presidential bid

Newt Gingrich -- the twice-divorced former House speaker and recent convert to Roman Catholicism -- is courting evangelical Christians as he lays the groundwork for a possible presidential campaign, hoping to find favor among a group that will play a pivotal role in picking the 2012 Republican nominee.

In recent years, Gingrich has met privately with pastors best known nationally for their campaigns against same-sex marriage, sharing deeply personal details about his marital history as he expresses contrition for his past actions.

Gingrich has also provided financial and strategic support for their causes. Last fall, he played a key behind-the-scenes role in an unprecedented -- and successful -- campaign to remove three Iowa Supreme Court judges who approved same-sex marriage in the state, helping secure $200,000 in seed money for the effort.

Two years ago, he created a nonprofit organization aimed at religious conservatives, filling the board with evangelical leaders. One board member, Vivian Berryhill, president and founder of the National Coalition of Pastors' Spouses, said Gingrich helped raise money and other resources to advance the group's projects on diabetes and teen sexual abstinence.

Gingrich's moves are meant to allay concerns among influential religious conservatives that his personal history is at odds with their views. In 2007, he admitted during a radio interview with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson that he had been having an extramarital affair with his present wife as he was excoriating President Clinton for lying to a grand jury about his dalliance with a White House intern. As Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, put it, Gingrich has "one ex-spouse too many for most evangelicals."

But as the former speaker moves closer to a potential White House bid, with more details expected Thursday, his wooing of the evangelical community appears to be paying off.

"I think he's just excellent," said Pastor Brad Sherman, who leads Solid Rock Christian Church in Coralville, Iowa. "Everybody brings up his past, but he's very open about that, and God is forgiving," said Sherman, who had lunch with Gingrich last fall.

Jim Garlow, the pastor of Skyline Church, a congregation in a San Diego suburb, called Gingrich "the strongest possible candidate" for the GOP nomination. Garlow led the effort in 2008 to pass Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in California.

Last year, Garlow agreed to serve as chairman of Gingrich's faith-based nonprofit, for which he receives what he called a "small stipend." Since then, he has provided Gingrich with entree to evangelical circles nationwide.

Gingrich, who was raised Lutheran and became a Southern Baptist when he entered Georgia politics, was not known for a focus on religious issues during his 20 years in Congress. But friends and Gingrich himself said his conversion two years ago to the Roman Catholic faith of his third wife, Callista, convinced him of the nation's need for spiritual renewal.

Though Catholics and evangelical Christians don't always agree, many share similar viewpoints on abortion and marriage issues. Gingrich characterized both as feeling "deeply under siege."

"I began to realize that what happens with evangelical Protestants and with Catholics is this strong sense of a dual assault," he said in an interview. "On one front they are under siege from radical Islamicists, and on the other they are under siege from radical secularists."

Several months after converting, Gingrich added a new organization to his constellation of for-profit and nonprofit corporations: Renewing American Leadership, dedicated to preserving "America's Judeo-Christian heritage by defending and promoting the three pillars of American civilization: freedom, faith and free markets."

Like several other nonprofits founded by Gingrich, Renewing American Leadership, known as ReAL, promotes his books, films and appearances -- and invites donations. Last year, it raised $3 million, a portion coming after a high-profile campaign opposing construction of an Islamic center near the former World Trade Center in New York.

Garlow agreed to head ReAL after a private meeting at which Gingrich acknowledged his past marital failings and began to weep as he spoke of his love for his two daughters.

"In my bleakest days when I was doing wrong, I knew it was wrong," Garlow quoted Gingrich as saying. "There was no attempt to justify his actions."

Garlow's commentaries now appear regularly on the ReAL website, encouraging matrimony, exploring faith and linking economic positions such as ending deficit spending to biblical principles.

Besides providing Gingrich with visibility, the site also gives him a mailing list of potential donors. He personally owns all the e-mail and mailing list information compiled by his network of groups.

None of Gingrich's meetings with religious leaders is more important or occurs with greater frequency than those in Iowa, the first state to choose delegates to the presidential nominating conventions. Gingrich is expected to travel to Iowa at least twice this month to address religious groups.

About 60% of Iowa caucus voters describe themselves as evangelical Christians. Their prominence helped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, win the GOP caucuses there in 2008.

This year, several potential presidential candidates are vying for attention among religious conservatives. But only Gingrich was instrumental in the most heralded event of recent Christian political activism: The effort last fall to remove the Iowa judges.

"It wouldn't have happened without Newt," said David Lane, executive director of Iowa for Freedom, the organization that led the campaign. "Newt provided strategic advice and arranged the initial seed money, about $200,000, which is what got everything started."

The money came from an anonymous donor whose contribution was arranged by Gingrich, Lane said.

Robert L. Vander Plaats, chief spokesman for the judicial campaign, said the former speaker provided key strategic advice.

He said Gingrich had won over pastors in the state with his "open and transparent" approach.

"Does the faith community have high standards? You bet," said Vander Plaats, who was Huckabee's state chairman in 2008. "But do we also understand that we all fall short of the standards? Yes, we do."

Gingrich says his recent outreach to Christian conservatives has built on an existing network.

In October, more than 40 prominent pastors came to Virginia for a private lunch with Gingrich at Liberty University, the Christian college founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. Last month, Gingrich met with 10 prominent clerics at a gathering organized by Richard G. Lee, founding pastor of First Redeemer Church in the Atlanta area. Lee said Gingrich impressed the group with his leadership proposals and his repentance.

Gingrich has had similar meetings in the key electoral states of South Carolina, Florida and New Hampshire, where he met late last year with nearly 100 pastors.

Although Gingrich has been forthcoming about his personal conduct in private conversations, he can become testy when pressed on the issue publicly. At the University of Pennsylvania last month, a Democratic student activist asked him to square his marital record with his goal of putting the nation on a higher moral plane.

"I hope you feel better about yourself," Gingrich responded. "I will be totally candid: I've had a life which, on occasion, has had problems. I believe in a forgiving God. … If the primary concern of the American people is my past, my candidacy would be irrelevant."

Gingrich said in an interview that he had already made "clear and definitive" admissions about his history.

"In the end, people will have to look at the totality of my life," he said.

Some prominent evangelical leaders said Gingrich still had significant work to do.

"There's a feeling that Newt understands how important social conservatives are to winning the coalition, but that it's our issues that are on the back of the bus when it comes to what he would do as president," Land said. "The speaker is going to have to convince people on that."

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

matea.gold@latimes.com

Julie Mianecki in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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