But Land also says the timing of the ABC News report that launched the controversy is "suspicious."
Gingrich's ex-wife Marianne gave an interview to ABC News Nightline Thursday (Jan. 19) in which she accused her former husband of wanting an open marriage in the late 1990s, apparently shortly before they divorced. According to her, Gingrich wanted to continue his affair with a congressional staff member, Callista, with Marianne's knowledge and approval. Callista is Gingrich's current wife. At Thursday's CNN debate, Gingrich denied the ABC charge.
South Carolina holds its primary Saturday, with Florida's primary following on Jan. 31.
"This is why some people have had some questions about his candidacy from the start," said Land, referring not only to Gingrich's infidelity but his two divorces. "This is going to continue to dog him. Before these revelations, he was getting twice as many male voters as female voters in South Carolina. He does have a gender gap, and that gender gap isn't going away, at least in the primaries. Republican primary voters will have to decide whether this is a critical issue or not.
"It's going to continue to make it harder for him to attract female voters. My experience has been that males are more likely to cut him slack on this and women are not -- particularly women of a certain age, 40 and above."
Only Gingrich and his wife know the truth, said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
"I think the timing of the interview is suspicious, intended to inflict maximum damage on Mr. Gingrich," Land said. "I thought his response was tactically brilliant in going after the press the way that he did. They're about as popular as Lucifer among Republican primary voters."
The story about the ABC report broke the day before the debate, and it dominated the news cycle in the hours leading up to the GOP debate. CNN's John King opened the debate asking Gingrich if he wanted to respond to the charges.
"No, but I will," Gingrich responded, as much of the audience stood and cheered.
He first criticized CNN for asking the question, and then added, "Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine."
Gingrich then denied the ABC report.
"Let me be quite clear," he said. "The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period says the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren't interested, because they would like to attack any Republican."
CNN's John King then asked the other three candidates on stage for their thoughts on the "open marriage" allegation. Romney passed, saying "let's get on to the real issues," but Santorum and Paul gave more nuanced answers.
"I am a Christian, too, and I thank God for forgiveness," Santorum said. "But, you know, these are issues of our lives, and what we did in our lives are issues of character for people to consider. But the bottom line is, those are things for everyone in this audience to look at, and they're to look at me, look at what I've done in my private life and personal life, unfortunately. And what I say is that this country is a very forgiving country. This country understands that we are all fallen."
Said Paul, "I think too often all of us are on the receiving ends of attacks from the media, and it's very disturbing, because sometimes they're not based on facts and we suffer the consequences. ... And I think our responsibility is sorting facts and fiction. The people have to sort this out. But I think setting standards are very important, and I'm very proud that my wife of 54 years is with me tonight."
The full ABC report aired Thursday night, and it showed Marianne Gingrich giving only a few more details that weren't known before the debate. But the report contrasted Gingrich's private life with his public rhetoric, showing him saying in 1998 to a friendly crowd: "There is no administration in American history with less moral authority than the Clinton-Gore administration." When Republicans were leading the effort to impeach President Clinton over charges that he lied about an affair, Gingrich was involved in an affair.
"If he is running for president," Marianne Gingrich told ABC News, "he has answers to give."
Newt Gingrich's affair with Callista allegedly lasted six years before the divorce with Marianne.
"I found out during our conversations that it was occurring in my bedroom in our apartment in Washington," Marianne said. "He always called me at night. He always ended with 'I love you.' Well, she was there listening."
"Right next to him?" ABC's Brian Ross asked
"In my home," she responded.
"I said to him, 'Newt, we've been married a long time.' And he said, 'Yes, but you want me all to yourself. Callista doesn't care what I do."
Ross asked, "What was he saying to you?"
"He was asking to have an open marriage, and I refused," she said. "... That is not a marriage."
Jackie Cushman, one of Gingrich's daughters from his first marriage to Jackie Battley, said her father has changed.
"He's a much different person than he was then," Cushman told ABC News. "He's grown, he's gotten closer to God, his faith in God has grown."
Ross contacted Marianne Gingrich after the GOP debate, asking her to respond to her ex-husband's reply.
"My story is the truth," she told him. "If he had really changed, he could have stepped up tonight and said he is sorry. But he never has."
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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