(Repeats to add slug)
* Christian conservative leader says has not decided
* Group to meet again on Monday
By Todd Melby and Sam Youngman
DES MOINES/MINNEAPOLIS, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Newt Gingrich's
marital problems have come back to haunt him in Iowa where
Christian conservatives are split over whether they can look
beyond his past infidelities and endorse him for the Jan. 3
The Family Leader, one of the state's most influential
evangelical groups, is in intense debate about whether to back
Gingrich, a front-runner in the contest to choose the Republican
to face Democratic President Barack Obama in November.
One influential Christian conservative in Iowa said group
leader Bob Vander Plaats, a respected force in Iowa Republican
politics, is facing opposition from members for his support for
"Bob wants to go with Gingrich," the source said. "Too many
supporters around him think that's utter madness. So they may go
their separate ways."
Vander Plaats has publicly said he has not made a decision,
but Gingrich lent significant financial backing to a 2010 effort
in Iowa, led by the group leader, which wound up with three Iowa
Supreme Court justices voted off the court in a fight over gay
The group failed to resolve their differences over Gingrich
at a meeting Friday and will meet again
Monday. Julie Summa, a spokeswoman for The Family
Leader, said that an announcement on an endorsement would come
early in the week.
Backing from The Family Leader could help propel a candidate
to the top of the field in Iowa, which holds the first
nominating contest for the 2012 presidential election, although
time is running out. Evangelicals lifted former Arkansas
Governor Mike Huckabee to a surprise 9-point win in the state in
While some leaders in the religious movement are loyal to
Gingrich as someone who has long fought for conservative causes,
many evangelical Christians are uneasy about Gingrich's marital
past. The problem may also dog him in other early voting states
where conservatives are strong, like South Carolina.
Gingrich has been divorced twice and admitted to cheating on
his first two wives, including while he led the charge to
impeach former President Bill Clinton for the Monica Lewinsky
affair. He has led most recent polling in Iowa ahead of the
caucuses, but opponents Ron Paul and Mitt Romney are not far
behind and an endorsement could make all the difference.
A source said The Family Leader is tending toward endorsing
Rick Santorum or Rick Perry, both of whom have strong
conservative credentials and often talk of family values.
Vander Plaats may end up personally endorsing the former House
speaker if that happens, the source said. Vander Plaats has not
been available for comment for several days.
Six of every 10 Iowans who participated in the 2008
Republican contest said they were born-again or evangelical
Christians, making them potential kingmakers if they settle on
Cary Gordon, pastor of the World Outreach Church in Sioux
City, has endorsed Santorum for the nomination and says
Gingrich's marital troubles were part of that decision.
"Absolutely," said Gordon, who is not a member of Family
Leader. "There's no way I can trust him."
"There's a lot of hesitation about Newt Gingrich," he said.
"There's no more sacred commitment to another human being than
Steve Deace, a national conservative radio host based in
Iowa, said Vander Plaats respects Gingrich's "boldness" when he
helped the Family Leader group bankroll the ousting of Iowa
state Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of gay marriage.
Deace said Gingrich "ought to get more credit" for his help
in defeating the justices who essentially legalized gay marriage
Other pastors and evangelical leaders view Gingrich
"The number of social conservatives who don't like Newt
Gingrich is small," he said. "But the number of social
conservatives who don't trust Newt Gingrich is big.
Conservatives are fired up because he's been championing their
issues in debates but he's got lots of baggage from the past."
Gingrich has converted to Catholicism, influenced by his
third wife Callista, and says he has asked God's forgiveness for
Santorum, a longtime champion of socially conservative
causes who is trailing in the polls, took a shot at Gingrich on
Wednesday at the premier of the anti-abortion movie "The Gift of
After Gingrich said in a statement to The Family Leader that
he believes life begins at conception, Santorum used his time at
the premier, in front of the Christian conservative audience, to
paint Gingrich as not a strong anti-abortionist.
"I have some problems with some of the folks, you know,
running for office these days when they say, 'I believe life
begins at conception,'" Santorum said. "It's like (saying), 'I
believe the sun rises.'"
Michele Bachmann, another contender for the endorsement and
a friend to social conservatives, has the backing of a group of
pastors and former State Representative Danny Carroll who
traveled the state for three days last week, urging Christians
conservatives to support Bachmann.
Until about a year ago, Carroll served on The Family
Leader's board of directors. He is now the group's lobbyist at
the Iowa statehouse.
"We come here this morning to ask Christians across Iowa to
support Michele Bachmann," Carroll said during a statehouse news
conference last week.
"We have determined that Michele Bachmann is Biblically
qualified to be the president, to be a leader. She is capable.
She is trustworthy. She fears God and she hates dishonest gain."
(Additional reporting by Kay Henderson; Editing by Vicki Allen)