While evangelicals applauded Newt Gingrich for his sharp response to CNN debate moderator John King on Thursday night about his second wife, evangelicals are not necessarily comfortable with electing him as the "values" candidate.
Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land said Gingrich's answer to King's question about his failed marriage to second wife Marianne was "tactically brilliant."
Marianne Gingrich told ABC News in a broadcast that aired late Thursday night that Gingrich sought an "open marriage" prior to their divorce. Gingrich vehemently fought off King's attempt to bring up his ex-wife's allegations during the final South Carolina debate.
"I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that," he charged. "My two daughters wrote to the head of ABC and made the point that it (the story from his former wife) was wrong, that they should pull it and I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate. I am tired of the liberal media protecting Barack Obama."
Land, the president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and executive editor of The Christian Post, also disagreed with King's decision to open the debate with Marianne's accusations. However, he expressed that the question is relevant given the party Gingrich is running in.
"This is the party of family values. If you're going to be in the party of family values, you got to walk the walk or you may be charged with hypocrisy," Land said.
Gingrich has been married three times. The first two marriages ended in divorce due to his infidelities. Additionally, his past two wives were his mistresses.
The former House Speaker tried to explain away his past on the campaign by discussing his newfound Catholic faith and sharing that he is now a wiser, older, grandfather figure. He also sent a letter to the Iowa Family Leader pledging to remain faithful to current wife, Callista.
And on Thursday, Texas Governor Rick Perry urged voters to forgive Gingrich according to Christian teachings after bowing out of the race and endorsing the former House speaker.
"Newt is not perfect, but who among us is. The fact is there is forgiveness for those who seek God. And I believe in the power of redemption for it is a central tenet of my Christian faith," Perry said.
Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Center, defended Gingrich on MSNBC show "Morning Joe."
"I do not think that it's an appropriate way to start the debate. In fact, I would have left it out of the debate," Perkins said.
Herman Cain, who ended his campaign amid allegations of an affair, also rushed to Gingrich's side.
"I loved Newt Gingrich's response because that's the same crap that they pulled on me, and that's what's wrong with politics. This is what's turning the American people off," Cain said on Fox News. "What does something that happened 20 years ago relative to an ex-wife have to do with fixing America's problems today? Nothing."
The Thursday night audience also gave Gingrich a standing ovation for his curt response.
Land agreed with supporters that Gingrich gave a strong answer. He also agreed with those who call for forgiveness. However, Land said, "Forgiveness and trusting someone with the presidency are two different things."
Land said evangelicals and Christian leaders are in for a challenge if Gingrich becomes the nominee. "For people who have stressed family values and character, yeah it will [be difficult]," he said.
Many evangelical leaders have endorsed presidential candidate Rick Santorum as a result.
"Christians feel he is a more reliable social conservative than Newt," Land said. Land attended the Texas meeting where Christian leaders discussed supporting Santorum, but did not personally endorse any of the candidates.
Gingrich is leading in South Carolina polls while Santorum is trailing behind Ron Paul.
In the end, Land said if Gingrich wins the GOP nomination, conservatives will get behind him.
"They going to be crossing their finger that his [past] won't come through and their going to support him against Barack," he said.