Newt wins debate, but did he win over voters?

Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich reacts to a question at the start of the Republican presidential candidate debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. AP Photo/David Goldman

COMMENTARY Newt Gingrich hit a home run the other evening in South Carolina when he took moderator John King's question about his former wife's allegation of his request for an open marriage and turned it into a media bashing moment. 

The audience cheered and Newt emerged bullish and confident. And in doing so he is providing an example that managers would be wise not to follow.

The trouble is, as CNN commentator Gloria Borger noted after the debate, women voters are unlikely to forget Newt's infidelities. Already trailing in popularity among women voters in Republican circles, Newt is likely to face even more resistance from women in a general election should he become the Republican nominee. And so he missed an opportunity to put the issue behind him.

Personally it is none of my business what a candidate does consensually behind closed doors, but when the issue becomes public he or she must address it. True enough Newt has spent much time talking about how he has come to a better understanding of himself and is a changed person. And this is due in no small part he says because he asked for God's forgiveness.

That is commendable, but apparently Marianne Gingrich, the wronged spouse, wants something more than Newt's nod to God. In her post-debate comments, Marianne said, ""If he had really changed, he could have stepped up tonight and said he was sorry," she said. "But he never has." [In fairness, Newt may have apologized to Marianne in years past but he did not do so publicly at the debate.]

Again we loop back into the celebrity apology game. Do something outrageous, get caught, and then apologize. It becomes a continuous loop of words not backed by anything more than an appearance on a talk show or press conference. True forgiveness can only come when the person who has committed the wrongdoing makes amends to the individual he or she has harmed.

Defenders of Gingrich are correct in pointing out that the presidential election is about big issues, or "grandiose" ideas as Newt himself said. And it may not be fair to judge a person by what his or her ex-spouse says about them. [Americans have watched enough Jerry Springer to know this.] People do evaluate behavior, however, and Gingrich's past behaviors do not support his avowed commitment to moral principles. Such an irony is akin to a CEO asking employees to do more with less while at the same time accepting a big bonus. Actions speak louder than words.

Voters have elected philanders as president before. Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton come to mind. And with the exception of the woeful Mr. Harding, all did a pretty fair turn in the White House.

Nonetheless character does matter. It is testament to the individual's convictions but more importantly to his actions. Voters can evaluate a candidate's public behavior and judge for themselves if they are worthy of elected office.

At the debate Newt could have addressed his infidelities by taking himself to task instead of John King. Blaming the messenger for the message is a politician's ploy. A leader must rise above the issue and demonstrate that he has the presence of mind as well as the character to hold himself accountable for his actions. 

Doing that would have shown viewers that he truly has changed and he has learned from his personal foibles as all leaders do.

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