NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Only in modern American politics could a presidential candidate turn sordid details released by the second of his three wives into a positive, by going after the news media.
Exit polls showed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, won "late deciding" voters and those who considered debates the most important factor in their decision in Saturday’s South Carolina Republican primary, showing he benefited from blaming the media for his personal behavior. Gingrich took 41 percent of the vote, defeating Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.
Gingrich "nailed it" when he attacked CNN moderator John King for opening a candidate debate with a question about an ex-wife’s claim that Gingrich wanted an "open marriage," said Washington-based Democratic strategist Dane Strother.
"The important thing is to stay on message and just pound it," Strother said. "After a few days, the media will just let it go and move on to other things."
Sex, scandal and the presidency are not a new combination: Andrew Jackson became the center of attacks after questions arose about whether his wife had divorced her first husband before marrying him; Grover Cleveland was suspected of fathering an illegitimate child; John F. Kennedy was rumored to have had numerous affairs while in office; and Bill Clinton faced impeachment over his relationship with a White House intern.
Strother knows firsthand how scandals can upend a presidential primary race. His father, Ray Strother, was Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart’s media adviser in 1987 when the Colorado senator, a front-runner for the nomination, was caught visiting the Bahamas with a woman who was not his wife.
That day, he said, Hart’s campaign staff walked out. They knew they could not repair the damage.
"Whenever clients have asked my advice about dealing with scandals, I have told them the same three things: tell it early, tell it all and tell it yourself," said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based GOP media consultant who specializes in counseling clients who have fallen from grace.
Americans are forgiving people when someone is contrite and honest, he said.
"They are not so forgiving when you hide, lie, stonewall or BS," said Gerow, who is running Gingrich’s campaign in Pennsylvania.
In an interview last week with the Tribune-Review, Gingrich agreed that people will forgive a politician’s mistakes "if they believe in their heart that you are sincere."
Handling a sex scandal well makes all the difference for a politician, said Alison Dagnes, editor of the book "Sex Scandals in American Politics."
Dagnes said many politicians lack political acumen: "Taking a timeout after a scandal breaks is best, to step back and survey the landscape."
A politician needs to consider: Will constituents forgive him for cheating on a spouse, if he has sought forgiveness elsewhere? That means the candidate’s wife must "stand by her man," and someone supporting him must step forward to speak on his behalf, telling people that "it was love," or "he’s a hard worker," or even, "he’s a great guy."
"This first point is crucial, because a smart politician knows that everyone has, in some way or another, messed up," Dagnes said. "And since we are, as values voters say, all sinners, we can forgive those sinners who have sought forgiveness from the most important people around him."
Sex scandals often snare conservative politicians because of the perceived hypocrisy when they espouse family values or pinpoint certain activities as sins.
Dagnes and Strother said that poses a special problem for Gingrich because he supposedly inquired about an open marriage — in which spouses agree that each may have sex with other people — about the same time he was criticizing Clinton’s dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
"Hypocrisy is one of those things that is just hard to fix," Strother said.
Gingrich honed his arguments against a "liberal gotcha media" over years in politics. But his former wife’s accusation that he wanted an "open marriage" was new, fertile ground for those who doubt he represents their values.
"This is the biggest stumbling block for him," Strother said. "In the 20 years I have done focus groups for clients, I can honestly say that ‘open marriage’ wasn’t one I ever considered testing."
For his part, Gingrich has never said he’s a nice guy; he’s "the bomb-thrower, the meanie who says nasty things and chuckles afterwards," Dagnes said.
He blamed the news media from the start for attacking him, so when he is exposed for doing something lousy, voters might shrug and think: "Well, that’s consistent."
Recent sex scandals
2011: Atlanta businessman and Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain led rivals in the fall but quit the race Dec. 3 after women from his past accused him of sexual harassment.
2011: New York congressman Anthony Weiner, a Democrat, tweeted a photo of a penis to a Seattle woman. The married politician first said someone hacked his Twitter account, then gave awkward interviews and avoided direct questions until finally confessing to sending the photo and having "online relationships" with six women. He resigned his seat.
2008-2010: Former Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards admitted to having an affair with Rielle Hunter, a video documentarian, but it took two years for him to acknowledge fathering her child after repeated denials. Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, died of breast cancer in 2010. Edwards could face up to five years in prison if convicted of using campaign money to cover up his affair.