Is Newt Gingrich The Religious Right Candidate By Default?

After Rick Perry jumped into the presidential race, the Texas governor quickly took the lead among Republican voters nationwide and in surveys in critical states like Iowa and South Carolina. Analysts reasonably predicted that the nomination would come down to a choice between Perry and Mitt Romney as other candidates like Michele Bachmann fizzled and Tim Pawlenty dropped out. Perry, who announced his candidacy following his The Response prayer rally, courted and won plaudits from Religious Right luminaries including James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Richard Land, David Barton, Don Wildmon, David Lane, James Leninger and Jerry Falwell Jr.

However, a number of disastrous debate appearances, including a painful fifty-three second brain freeze, have derailed Perry’s candidacy as Herman Cain has risen in the polls. But Cain’s nonsensical and inconsistent responses to standard questions on abortion rights and marriage equality, along with his dysfunctional and mismanaged campaign, did little to endear him tp Religious Right leaders.

New polls now have Newt Gingrich surging to second place behind Romney nationally, and second to Cain in Iowa and South Carolina. Rick Perry’s support in Iowa and South Carolina, on the other hand, dropped to four and six percent, respectively.

During Gingrich’s calamitous rollout, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association outlined why “social conservatives and all those in the pro-family movement must have grave reservations about his candidacy”:

But actions have consequences, and his pattern of infidelity is only made worse by the fact that he divorced diseased wives to whom he had pledged himself "in sickness and in health...til death do us part."

John the Baptist famously rebuked a politician of his day for his problematic marital history, and Mr. Gingrich rightly comes in for similar censure.

Even Gingrich’s answer to Fischer, who asked Gingrich how he would “slow down the homosexual agenda,” didn’t seem to satisfy him.

But with Perry’s collapse, Bachmann and Santorum’s single digit polling and Cain’s daily gaffes, does Gingrich have a chance at becoming Romney’s chief opponent and the Religious Right’s candidate by default? He has certainly tried to endear himself to social conservatives by participating in the “One Nation Under God” event and pastor policy briefings, and pledging to wage an all-out war on the judiciary, a favorite Religious Right punching bag. Gingrich has wooed activists and groups like John Hagee, Joseph Farah, Janet Porter, Liberty University, Liberty Counsel, The Family Leader and the Minnesota Family Council, and helped funnel money to the American Family Association’s campaign to defeat Iowa Supreme Court justices who favored marriage equality.

The Washington Times today trumpeted the new conventional wisdom that Gingrich is a top contender, emphasizing his potential to gain support among social conservative voters who are cold to Romney. The Times quotes California pastor Jim Garlow, who reporter Ralph Hallow accurately notes is “credited with organizing the evangelicals in the drive to pass a same-sex marriage ban in California,” to show Gingrich’s support in the Religious Right.

What the Times reporter does not mention is the fact that Garlow is a top spiritual adviser to Newt Gingrich and heads Gingrich’s Renewing American Leadership (ReAL). Garlow tells the Times that conservative evangelical voters are far more forgiving of Gingrich’s serial adultery and multiple divorces than of Romney’s Mormon faith and flip flops:

Contrary to the beliefs of many in the party, voters on the Christian right have not written off Mr. Gingrich despite a personal history that includes multiple marriages and admitted infidelities.

“Evangelicals will definitely go for Newt if he is the nominee,” insisted Jim Garlow, credited with organizing the evangelicals in the drive to pass a same-sex marriage ban in California. “I used to hear them say, ‘He’s the smartest one in the room, but he has personal issues.’ I’ve seen an enormous shift in the past four or five months. They no longer talk about personal issues, but about intelligence and capability of being president.”

Mr. Garlow, senior pastor of the Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, said if the nomination fight came down to Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich, “I’m guessing 80 [percent] to 90 percent of the evangelical vote in America would go to Newt. Romney’s Mormonism may be a factor, but the reason I hear most is they don’t trust Romney on abortion, marriage, economics and health care.”

“I think, no question, evangelicals will go for Newt if it comes down to him and Romney,” said Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Director Steve Scheffler, credited with organizing support for Pat Robertson’s stunning second-place finish in the 1988 Iowa caucuses. “Evangelicals are concerned with personal conduct, but most will judge people on their present conduct, and they have concluded Newt’s present lifestyle is exemplary.”

Now that Gingrich is rising in the polls, will the Religious Right have to embrace him to stop Romney?