The last time Pastor Robert Jeffress elbowed into the presidential race, he was warning a crowd of “values voters” about the dangers of nominating a Mormon. Jeffress, who leads the First Baptist Church in Dallas, wanted them to pick Rick Perry instead: He was an evangelical Christian who “sang the doxology,” married his childhood sweetheart, and stayed faithful (as far as anyone knows) for 29 years. Easy choice.
But Republicans may not get to choose between Perry and Mitt Romney. The current front-runner in Iowa is Newt Gingrich–thrice married, an admitted adulterer, a late convert to Catholicism. He’s pulling voters from the other “anti-Romney” of choice, Herman Cain, because women keep tumbling out of Cain’s closet clutching sexual harassment settlements and phone records of (allegedly!) decade-long affairs.
“I think there’s now an evangelical tri-lemma,” says Jeffress, who still backs Perry but doesn’t have illusions about his current electoral oomph. “Do you vote for a Mormon who’s had one wife, a Catholic who’s had three wives, or an Evangelical who may have had an entire harem?”
This is a problem. The leadership of the evangelical right, as loose as it is, has the most influence over a Republican nomination in Iowa, in the caucuses. With a month to go, the candidate who said the right things and built the right-sized lead over Romney is Gingrich. Evangelical kingmakers, whom Newt has courted for years, are discussing how to forgive him. The actual voters who’ll pick the candidate aren’t quite so sure.
We know this because evangelical leaders have been checking. On Monday night, after Gingrich and other Republicans bared all to a forum put on by the Iowa FAMiLY Leader (the group keeps the “I” lowercase to indicate submission to God), radio host Steve Deace shepherded a focus group of six men and five women. They liked Gingrich. They worried about his personal life. Ten of the 11 were so worried that they wondered why the FAMiLY Leader included him in the first place. At Deace’s website, Jen Green explained that the doubters worried about “the affairs and the seeming lack of public repentance for them,” and felt that Gingrich hadn’t “done enough to restore their faith in him.”
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