2012 Kickoff

March 10, 2011

Earlier this week, five 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls traveled to Iowa for the first forum of this campaign cycle. Many called the event the kickoff for the 2012 campaign. Among those who attended were talk show host Herman Cain, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum (the photo is of Santorum at last fall's gathering of the Family Research Council, which was founded by James Dobson). The Iowa Faith & Freedom Alliance, a state affiliate of the Faith & Freedom Coalition founded by Ralph Reed (who used to lead the Christian Coalition), hosted this week's forum. Reed spoke at the event before the candidates, as did Iowa's new (and also former) Governor Terry Branstad, Representative Steve King, and a couple of Iowa evangelical leaders.

The fact that Reed and his group were able to get the first forum for this cycle demonstrates that our age of confessional politics remains alive. At the event, the agenda of conservative evangelicals clearly received top billing, thus setting the tone for the Iowa contest. Many of the candidates have also been including religious rhetoric in other campaign addresses (I have highlighted Santorum here and Pawlenty here). One figure who might not be a natural fit for conservative evangelicals is former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who has been divorced twice and had affairs with wives two and three while married to the previous wife (one affair occurred while he was leading the effort to impeach President Bill Clinton for lying under oath about an affair). However, as a recent Catholic convert, Gingrich is working hard to recast himself as the candidate who can best represent evangelical values and priorities. Gingrich often invokes religious themes in his political messages, has been meeting with Christian leaders, started a religious-political organization being run by a pastor, and even is publicly confessing his sins and talking about finding forgiveness from God (as he told Pat Robertson's CBN that he basically had affairs because he loves America so much!). As I reported last November, Gingrich has connections with a number of conservative evangelical leaders who have already started meeting to plan how to defeat President Barack Obama next year (although others in the group are quite unimpressed with Gingrich as a presidential candidate). It will be interesting to see if Gingrich's outreach to evangelicals is successful. As I note in my new book (Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics), Gingrich is clearly able to meet the rhetorical expectations of our confessional era but his affairs and divorces may result in him being unable to find success in our age of confessional politics.