DES MOINES, Iowa — Influential Iowa conservative Bob Vander Plaats told The Daily Caller in an interview he thinks religious voters could still coalesce behind Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich despite his well-publicized history of marital infidelity.
“The centerpiece of our faith is forgiveness,” Vander Plaats, the leader of the Family Leader organization, said during a discussion at a diner here on Wednesday.
Gingrich, he said, has “admitted that he’s hurt people” and “wishes he could do things differently” and therefore Christian voters are open to him.
“They’re kind of thinking, maybe we should overlook some of this stuff with Newt because he might be the best to lead at this time,” Vander Plaats said. “That’s what I think you’re seeing with his rise.”
He added: “Now that doesn’t mean we’re over everything. There’s still baggage we need to address, you know personal and policy wise.”
Vander Plaats, whose endorsement would be welcomed by candidates because of his potential to mobilize Christian voters behind a campaign, also told TheDC that he wishes former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose Iowa campaign he chaired in 2008, was running for president this time.
If the Family Leader endorses anyone, Vander Plaats said the recipient would be either Gingrich, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Vander Plaats said Christian voters in Iowa are divided, though many are waiting to see if one rises to be the clear alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“I think it’s not that there’s a lack of good candidates,” he said of why he hasn’t endorsed anyone yet. “It’s just that you have several who are championing our values right now, so it’s hard to walk away from anyone of them.”
He also said it’s “very important” to Christian conservatives that Romney isn’t the nominee.
“He hasn’t admitted that Massachusetts health care is a bad idea. He still thinks it’s a good idea. He hasn’t admitted he has been on both sides of the pro-life, pro-marriage, health care, limited government issues. He’s been passionately on both sides. He hasn’t admitted that,” Vander Plaats said.
Still, he said if he “was caucusing tonight, my wife and I would have to have about an hour sit down and figure out who we’re caucusing for.”
“We still don’t know,” he said. “So if we’re that way, I got to believe the majority of the caucus-goers are that way. And that’s why an endorsement from us may matter more too, because people may go here’s some direction and I’ll blame it on Vander Plaats and the Family Leader if we’re wrong.”
Here’s a transcript of the conversation with Vander Plaats, edited for clarity.
TheDC: When will your group, the Family Leader, endorse a GOP candidate?
Vander Plaats: I never thought I’d tell you this. It’s December 7th with a January 3rd caucus, and I think our board thinks it’s too early. It’s been such an usual caucus…
Everybody’s kind of had their day in the sunshine. Bachmann rises, falls. Perry rises, falls. Cain rises, out. And now you’ve got Newt at the top of the heap…That’s why there’s about 70, 80 percent of the population that still says they could go some place else. And so the board is continuing to be, what they say, diligent, but expeditious, not in a hurry to make a mistake.
So we’ll see. I think right now they’re probably saying, we have a debate with ABC Dec. 10, we have another debate with Fox Dec 15. Then I think it’s either we endorse or we don’t.
TheDC: So there’s actually a chance you might not endorse?
Vander Plaats: Yes. It may be we’re hung because as a CEO, I want clarity and unanimity from the board. I don’t need to divide my board over this because those tend to be deep wounds…So if we can get clarity, I would say that’s when we would endorse. If we can’t we’ll probably leave it to our final four and see what caucus goers say.
TheDC: Is part of the reason you haven’t endorsed yet because you think the crop of candidates running is weak? Do they wish someone like Mike Huckabee had gotten in?
Vander Plaats: If Huckabee would’ve gotten in, I think it would be different.
TheDC: Should he had run?
Vander Plaats: Well I’m thinking he should’ve gotten in, being his former state chair…There’s a lot of us who put time, effort and energy in for Gov. Huckabee and of course he did as well. And he’s having an impact where he’s at, but we wanted him to be president.
I think it’s not that there’s a lack of good candidates. It’s just that you have several who are championing our values right now. So it’s hard to walk away from anyone of them. And then we have a lot of supporters who are going with different ones.
The DC: In terms of Newt, could Christian conservatives actually get behind a guy who is on his third wife and admitted to infidelity?
Vander Plaats: He’s definitely in our consideration. And what I tell people is that the centerpiece of our faith is forgiveness. The key word you just said is he admitted.
The problem with Romney is he hasn’t admitted. He hasn’t admitted that Massachusetts healthcare is a bad idea. He still thinks it’s a good idea. He hasn’t admitted he has been on both sides of the pro-life, pro-marriage, health-care, limited government issues. He’s been passionately on both sides. He hasn’t admitted that.
With Gingrich, Gingrich hasn’t had a road to Des Moines conversion. This conversion happened a long time ago. He’s been repentant. He’s definitely admitted that he’s hurt people, wishes he could do things differently. He’s admitted that he’s fallen on his knees before God and that he had a hollow moment in his life that the only way to fill the void was rediscovering God in the process. The fruit of that is he’s had a 12 year marriage to Callista. He’s had a good relationship with his children and grandchildren. So part of our faith isn’t to beat people over the head with a Bible as a club and say you can never recover, it’s to say “we all fall short.”
Now that doesn’t mean we’re over everything. There’s still baggage we need to address, you know personal and policy wise. But right now, he’s articulating a world-view through a very historical and biblical lens that is applicable to today’s environment…
They’re kind of thinking, maybe we should overlook some of this stuff with Newt because he might be the best to lead at this time. That’s what I think you’re seeing with his rise.
TheDC: Despite the momentum, Newt’s organization is scrambling right to put together an organization here in Iowa.
Vander Plaats: See, that’s the concern. Four years ago, Huckabee didn’t have a large paid staff because he couldn’t. But we had the headquarters just filled to the brim with volunteers making calls every day. So whether they like the counsel or not, I’ve been very open, saying, “You have a top tier candidate. You have a frontrunner candidate. But your organization is not there yet. And if your organization doesn’t get there, his numbers — he’ll under perform the numbers of the poll.”
A guy like Ron Paul could out perform his numbers. The reason is his organization is loyal. He’s built this over years. And they’re going to show up. Ron Paul supporters are going to show up on Jan. 3 over ice and a blizzard whatever the conditions to go support their guy.
TheDC: How important is it that Romney isn’t the nominee?
Vander Plaats: Very important. And that’s the other dilemma. It goes back to my coaching days. If your end goal is to win the game, even though you like some of these players a lot as individuals and people, having them shoot three-pointers for you might not be the best way to win the game.
So if your end goal is to find a conservative alternative to Romney who can go the distance to beat Obama, you got to be concerned that your support also doesn’t really just give Romney the nomination. You could end up saying, “ok we’re going to end up supporting whoever.” Great. I’m glad you did. But you just aided Romney. Although I think Romney – it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Romney finishes not in the top three, he finishes four or five here.
Everybody says he’s such a smart CEO. I been around a lot of CEOs, I am a CEO, been a CEO. He’s not a smart CEO.
TheDC: Why is that?
Vander Plaats: Think if you and I were on his board of directors. And we say to him, “Gov. Romney, if you win Iowa, you run the table. No one touches you. New Hampshire, Florida, Super Tuesday, forget about South Carolina. You win Iowa, it’s over. [Imitating Romney, he says,] ‘I think I’ll downplay Iowa.’ Really, how dumb is that? He takes fourth or fifth here, he’s going to get beat in New Hampshire and he’s not going to be the nominee. That’s not a smart CEO.
TheDC: Santorum and Bachmann are also working hard in Iowa. Then there’s Perry. Which of these three could end up being a surprise candidate come caucus night?
Vander Plaats: That’s a great question. It’s one we’re trying to figure out. Because I could see Bachmann and/or Perry having a resurgence…For Santorum, he’s the only one who hasn’t caught his wave yet. Is this his wave? You want to peak at the right time. In this environment, if he peaks after December 15th, it’s the right time.
And the thing about Santorum, he’s visited all 99 counties. People love him. We love him. The most common question I get with Santorum, not only in Iowa, but across the country is why hasn’t he got the traction he should’ve gotten by now. It’s a hard one to explain, because he’s right on the issues, very articulate, very bright. He doesn’t stick to talking points. He’s not politics as usual. He was tea party before tea party was cool.
The Huckabee forum. When I watched that, my critique of Santorum was he probably comes off more as a U.S. Senator than a president. A U.S. Senator is willing to debate and filibuster, a president gives direction, then gives the reason for the direction, and then reminds everybody of the direction. There’s a difference between a CEO and legislator. So he’s probably trying to break out of that a little bit.
TheDC: What else can you tell us about the caucuses?
Vander Plaats: I think it’s going to break late, and I think it’s going to break fast. I really believe this caucus has the potential of breaking late and fast. That’s why our board. I think they’re like, “lets put the clutch in for a second, take a lamaze breath and find out what’s going to go on here.” Because we’ve been paying attention for a long time and we haven’t made up our minds.
And if I was caucusing tonight, my wife and I would have to have about an hour sit down and figure out who we’re caucusing for. We still don’t know. So if we’re that way, I got to believe the majority of the caucus goers are that way. And that’s why an endorsement from us may matter more too, because people may go here’s some direction and I’ll blame it on Vander Plaats and the Family Leader if we’re wrong.