GREENVILLE, S.C. -- At a private gathering of pastors in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a contrite Newt Gingrich pitched his story of personal redemption Thursday. Along South Carolina's coast, Texas Gov. Rick Perry referenced Scripture as he worked to pump life into his floundering White House bid.
With the Republican presidential campaign hurtling toward the Jan. 3 leadoff Iowa caucuses, the two candidates are courting evangelicals with vigor.
And for good reason.
Christian conservatives who typically hold powerful sway in GOP primaries haven't united behind any one candidate this year, though they have generally been skeptical of Mitt Romney's Mormon faith. Thus, their support is up for grabs in the extraordinarily fluid race. And neither Gingrich, who has recently pushed past Romney in some polls, nor Perry is being shy about seeking it.
"I ask them to give me a second look," Perry told reporters in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., his first stop of a busy day of campaigning in the state filled with religious voters. "They're going to see me a lot, and they're going to get to find out a lot about me, not only about my faith but also about the economic policies we put in place in Texas."
Up and down the coast, faith was never far from his side as he worked to remind evangelicals that he's been one of them all along – the same message he's sending in two new TV ads in Iowa promoting his Christianity.
It's a contrast, unspoken for now, to the Catholic convert Gingrich, who has acknowledged two extramarital affairs and is casting himself as a sinner who has sought God's forgiveness.
That was the message he sent Thursday when he ducked into a private meeting of Renewal South Carolina that attracted pastors and other religious conservatives.
The redemption theme resonates loudly in Christian circles and, at least on this day, seemed to be working for the former Georgia congressman.
"I have been very impressed with his spiritual awakening," said Fred Godley, a Charlotte, N.C., realtor who attended. "We are all works in progress and he has been more forthcoming about it than most."
But not everyone is persuaded.
As the candidate made his pitch in South Carolina, an Iowa pastor – The Rev. Cary K. Gordon, of Sioux City's Cornerstone Church – unveiled a hip-hop satire calling Gingrich "the GOP's Kim Kardashian for his many infidelities on marriage." Gordon said he would be blasting the video out to registered Republicans and non-aligned Iowa voters by cellphone.
To be sure, Gingrich and Perry aren't the only two candidates seeking evangelical support; Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum are, too.
But, at this point, those two are languishing in the single digits in polls and also lack the money and momentum that's probably needed to break into the GOP field's top tier.
Gingrich has ridden a wave of enthusiasm to the front of the pack in recent polls, and Perry still is sitting on a pile of cash raised during the early days of his now struggling campaign.
So both are trying to leverage their advantages to emerge as the religious right's favorite. Up to this point, the economy has taken center stage nationally in this year's campaign, trumping cultural issues.
Even so, Christian conservative leaders say the path to the GOP nomination must still wind past the pulpit – especially in Iowa and South Carolina, where religious voters made up 60 percent of primary or caucus voters in the last presidential race.
In other early states, religious voters have less muscle but could still play a decisive role in a close contest.
"These are highly-motivated voters who go to the polls," said Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition who now runs the Faith and Freedom Coalition. "Anyone who wins the Republican nomination is going to do so with strong support from religious voters."
Somewhat surprisingly, the twice-divorced Gingrich, who has acknowledged having an extramarital affair with the woman who now is his wife, is showing signs of strength among religious voters.
A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll found that 39 percent of likely Iowa caucusgoers who identified themselves as evangelicals said they were backing Gingrich. A CBS-New York Times poll found Gingrich attracting three times as much support as Romney from evangelical Christians in Iowa.
Despite those numbers, Gingrich has more work to do, such as explaining his 2009 conversion from to Catholicism. Gingrich was drawn into the church by his third wife, Callista, a practicing Roman Catholic, and he said he came to believe in its teachings.
Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said that Gingrich has a gender gap and must still explain his marital indiscretions in a way that "allays the fears of evangelical women."
"You need to make it as clear as you possibly can that you deeply regret your past actions and that you do understand the anguish and the suffering they caused others, including your former spouses," Land wrote in an open letter to Gingrich.
Perry, arguably, has more credibility than Gingrich with evangelicals, given that he counts himself as one of them. In a bid to send that message before he entered the race in August, Perry hosted an evangelical gathering that drew 30,000 to Houston.
That didn't translate into automatic support when he became a candidate.
But Perry is redoubling his efforts in the new TV advertisements and on the campaign trail.
"This one reminds me of Joshua 1:9," Perry said as he rifled through greeting cards at Lulu Burgess craft store in Beaufort, S.C.
He also capped off his remarks at Blackstone's Cafe with, "God bless you. Keep us in your prayers."
And, later in Okatie, Perry said that he wouldn't touch older workers' Social Security benefits: "You're set till the good Lord takes you home."
As if there were any question to where he stood, Perry also made sure to drive the point home with reporters, saying: "I'm not afraid to talk about my Christian faith. I'm not afraid to talk about the values that this country was based upon. I think we need to get back to those values."
Elliott reported from Beaufort, S.C.
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