The Sydney Morning Herald

by David Smith

The triumph of Newt Gingrich in South Carolina reminds us that the politics of the personal is as strategic as any other politics.

Moral outrage is not a natural phenomenon that occurs automatically in response to revelations about politicians' personal lives. It is a political weapon to be exploited or neutralised by those who best understand how to use it. No one understands better than Gingrich how outrage works in South Carolina.

America's "Red" states (conservative, Republican-voting) have higher average rates of divorce and birth out of wedlock than the supposedly more permissive "Blue" states. While conservatives insist on strict moral rules, they know they live in a morally complicated world. Everybody knows and loves people who have "fallen" at least once. Gingrich wants to appear as someone who has sinned and repented, and deserves the forgiveness everyone sometimes needs.

Moreover, he has successfully turned himself into a victim. When CNN's John King opened a debate with a question about Marianne Gingrich's claims that Newt had asked for an open marriage, he called the accusations "tawdry" and expressed outrage that the "elite media" would try to protect Barack Obama by attacking a leading Republican this way. This earned him a standing ovation; he had masterfully implied that an attack on him by his ex-wife was an attack on all conservatives by the vindictive liberal media. During the Obama presidency, Republicans have found no emotion more satisfying than victimhood.

If conservative Christians understand that moral rules are difficult to follow and transgressions must sometimes be forgiven, they have less tolerance for people who want to overturn the rules. This may make Gingrich a more acceptable candidate than Mitt Romney, who has a spotless family life but signed gay marriage into law as governor of Massachusetts. Brad Atkins, the leader of South Carolina's 700,000 Southern Baptists, has also claimed "Romney's Mormonism will be more of a concern than Gingrich's infidelity'', because Christians can forgive infidelity but Mormonism is a continuing affront to Christianity.

"The personal" is a lot more than sex. Gingrich's well-known past infidelities may have lost the power to hurt him, but that does not mean "character" has ceased to be an issue. Testimony from former colleagues could hurt him more than testimony from ex-wives. Grandiosity might be less forgivable than infidelity.

Dr David Smith is a lecturer in American politics at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.