ABC News’ Michael Falcone reports:
DES MOINES — Though no one speaks for the entire evangelical community in Iowa, Bob Vander Plaats’ voice is one of the loudest and most influential. And, listen closely to what he has to say about Newt Gingrich:
“The heart of our Christian faith, which doesn’t get talked enough about is forgiveness,” Vander Plaats said in an interview with ABC News. “When there’s life change, the scripture says the heavens rejoice. Well, if scripture says that, then we probably should rejoice as well.”
Vander Plaats, the CEO of a well-known Iowa social conservative group called The Family Leader, is searching for a candidate to endorse with less than three weeks to go before the Jan. 3 caucuses. He and his board of directors plan to meet after Thursday night’s presidential debate to see if they can coalesce behind a candidate.
One thing is clear: his group is looking to throw their weight behind anybody but Mitt Romney.
“Is Newt flawed? You bet he’s flawed,” he said. “But Bob Vander Plaats is flawed as well.”
Gingrich, who has been married three times, drew praise from Vander Plaats this week for publicly embracing the principles of a 14-point “Marriage Vow” the group has been asking all the Republican candidates to sign.
“I also pledge to uphold the institution of marriage through personal fidelity to my spouse and respect for the marital bonds of others,” Gingrich wrote in a written response to The Family Leader’s request. (He did not officially sign the document.)
Vander Plaats, a devout Christian, said he was confident Gingrich was a changed man.
“Take a look at the Apostle Paul — I mean that guy was a train wreck before the road to Damascus conversion,” Vander Plaats said, referring to Gingrich’s journey as a “road to Des Moines conversion.”
But he also has another reason to like the candidate: the former House Speaker helped raise $200,000 for a successful effort, led by Vander Plaats, to oust three Iowa Supreme Court judges in 2010 over their support for same-sex marriage.
According to recent ABC News polling in Iowa, Gingrich leads among evangelicals in the state, but their support still remains largely divided among several of the candidates. But their influence over the final outcome of the caucuses could be large. In 2008, 60 percent of GOP caucus-goers identified themselves as evangelicals, according to ABC pollster Gary Langer.
Though Vander Plaats insists he is still weighing his options, his talk of “forgiveness” and “conversion” when it comes to Gingrich could be interpreted as a sign he is trying to prepare his followers for an endorsement of a candidate with a history of marital infidelity.
He said he is not concerned about a backlash from those who are less willing than he is to forgive.
“Our driving force is that we need to do what’s right,” he said. “You’ll never be right when you do what’s wrong, you’ll never be wrong when you do what’s right.”
He and his board will be weighing three factors as they consider which candidate to back: core values and convictions; a pro-family vision; and the ability to beat President Obama.
“Hopefully,” he said of Gingrich, “the childish ways are behind him.”