By Ronald Barley (KNA)
Washington (KNA) Suddenly Newt Gingrich is on top. The former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was considered yesterday's politician and his presidential candidacy something of a joke after numerous close associates suddenly bowed out of the campaign for the Republican Party nomination a few months ago. But even outsiders tend to have a chance when the competition is as pathetically weak as Gingrich's intraparty rivals.
After the front-runners in the polls changed almost weekly, with first Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann and then Texas Governor Rick Perry casting all-too-clear doubts on their competence, a short-lived darling of the conservative crowd has now jumped ship. Former pizza chain executive Herman Cain threw in the towel over the weekend after sexual harassment allegations were joined by evidence of a 13-year extramarital affair.
So now Gingrich is the front-runner in the polls, and the political pro can be expected to remain so for some time to come. The Republican Party, meanwhile, appeals much more strongly than the Democrats – where President Barack Obama is running again and does not have to face a primary like the six remaining Republican candidates – to a distinctly Christian segment of the electorate. In past presidential elections, Republicans had their strongest support among Catholic and evangelical voter groups.
Gingrich, a 68-year-old historian, holds a doctorate in European history – which may be suspect to some anti-intellectual Tea Party activists. And he was a member of the Southern Baptist Church until he visited St. Peter's Basilica in Rome in 2005 under the influence of his spouse Calista. As Gingrich reported several times in the media, Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the U.S. was.
2008 a "turning point" for the politician: "I was spellbound by the peace and joyfulness in faith that the Holy Father radiated." His presence, he said, was for Gingrich "a moment of validation of a lot of things that I've thought about and been moved by for years". In March 2009, Gingrich converted to Catholicism. "After a decades-long, perhaps lifelong journey on matters of faith," he said he had "finally come home".
Now that Gingrich is the focus of media scrutiny and critical scrutiny by potential voters, it remains to be seen whether he meets the standards of his Christian constituency.
For in a country where a presidential candidate's private life becomes a "character ie" in the campaign, Gingrich has come to rely on an original Christian emotion: that of understanding and forgiveness. His path to faith was not without detours. Wife Calista is his third wife. A detail that is now widely known: he was already having an affair with her while he was still married to his second wife.
Both Bill Clinton – over the affair with Monica Lewinsky – and George W. Bush – because of his propensity for alcohol in his younger years – have publicly asked for God's mercy and for forgiveness from voters. Gingrich, whose self-ared nature would be hard matched by a "mea culpa" in front of rolling cameras, has now explained in a bit of a cloak-and-dagger fashion that the about-face in his life came after he caused pain to others. He goes to God to find reconciliation and grace.
A Republican campaign adviser, Catholic Mary Matalin, told The Washington Post that for Catholics, forgiveness is one of the most important duties of all. Given the moralistic intransigence that often prevails in political disputes in the U.S., the hope for forgiveness or at least forgetfulness by voters sounds almost like shouting in a dark forest night.