When South Carolinians take to the polls on Jan. 21, two of the major contenders they'll see on the Republican ballot will invoke thoughts of more than just political views.
They will raise the issues of faith, fidelity and the very definition of Christianity in a state where God and the gospel are staples as culturally entrenched as grits.
On one side is current frontrunner Newt Gingrich, who has a double-digit lead but continues to be haunted by questions about his infidelity and two failed marriages.
On the other is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the man in second place who has been married to the same woman for more than 40 years with no such baggage.
The new president of the S.C. Baptist Convention, a part of the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest religious group in the state with nearly 1,900 churches and 900,000 adherents in 2000), says the choice is clear.
The Rev. Brad Atkins, tabbed in November to lead the group for the coming year, told Patch on Friday that while Gingrich's infidelities may represent a major obstacle for some Christian voters, it isn't an issue that necessarily excludes the former speaker from consideration. Rather, it's an issue that calls for prayerful consideration of Gingrich's numerous public confessions to his wrongdoings.
The issue presented by Romney's faith may be more deeply rooted to South Carolinians.
"In South Carolina, Romney's Mormonism will be more of a cause of concern than Gingrich's infidelity," said Atkins, the pastor at Powdersville First Baptist Church in the Upstate.
"Conservatives can process and pray their way through the issue of forgiveness toward a Christian that has had infidelity in their life, but will struggle to understand how anyone could be a Mormon and call themselves 'Christian.'"
Some political experts think Gingrich faces a tougher test within his own party over his past failures than he would in a general election if he were to pull out the nomination.
Robert Oldendick, executive director of the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research at the University of South Carolina, said that in any other year, Gingrich's personal history would present a major issue. In a general election, scenario, however, it is likely to be but a minor one, for three key reasons.
Firstly, Gingrich's personal issues are old news that many voters have already confronted and judged. Secondly, because Gingrich is now the frontrunner, any attacks made based on his infidelities is likely to occur by his conservative competitors. Thirdly, Gingrich has thus far been able to deflect such attacks successfully, as evidenced by his strong poll presence.
"His 'I made mistakes; I hope people will judge me on who I am now,' seems to be acceptable to the independent voters that he will need in the general election," Oldendick said.
The fact that America still faces high unemployment, a weak housing market and a slowed economic recovery would only make attacks from the other side of the aisle not only likely ineffective, but poor strategy.
When Gingrich was calling for Clinton's head in the 1990s, he was doing so when America was not facing economic turmoil. Now that Gingrich is under the spotlight, his moral shortcomings may seem trivial compared to the macro-level issues being considered.
"It would be difficult — and probably not a good strategy — for the Democrats to make 'family values' an important theme of the general election," Oldendick said.
"The 2012 election will turn overwhelmingly on the economy, and to the extent that the glimmer of good economic news that has been seen in the past couple of months continues through late October, President Obama's re-election chances are enhanced."
Americans' narrow focus on the economy is one Atkins considers myopic, ill-informed and wrong.
"The tragedy is that again this year the majority of committed Christians that will have registered and be able to vote, when push comes to shove, will cast their vote for a candidate on jobs — the economy," Atkins said.
"As a state, and as a country, this has sadly been our track record. I believe that God is not going to bless this nation again and bring us out of this economic disaster until we repent and start focusing on the moral, spiritual issues. Abortion, infanticide, marriage between a man and a woman and homosexuality have to take center stage."
Still, the state's fascination with religion may make otherwise longshots more competitive with Romney, who has been firmly planted in the top tier of the GOP field from the get-go.
"Both (Texas Gov. Rick) Perry and (Minnesota Rep. Michele) Bachmann will most likely fare better in South Carolina because of their openness to discuss their faith, but Gingrich can also speak about his Christian faith and values very openly as well," Atkins said.
And while Romney has been married to the same woman for more than 40 years, the fact that he's a Mormon receives different consideration from some South Carolinian christians who are willing to forgive Gingrich's behavior as merely past actions, and not a worldview.
"Since most believers have had at least some moral failings, our only consideration should be where they are presently according to their own testimony. Christians must always give the 'benefit of the doubt.' Where the candidate is now is the main issue," Atkins said.
"It (Gingrich's past) will probably have a greater impact on his electability in South Carolina than some other states because, at least to some degree, we remain a morally conservative state. However, we have to accept his confession that he has made mistakes, has asked for God's forgiveness in regards to those, and that he is deeply committed to his wife now. There will be many voters in not only South Carolina, but also around our nation that will pray over this issue as they consider him as a potential candidate for president."
Danielle Vinson, who chairs Furman University's political science department, said while she believes Gingrich's past is a mainly a primary, not a general election issue, that opponents could have an opening that broaches the topic of more than his mere personal failures.
"Gingrich's personal life might surface in the general election as part of a larger storyline about whether he has the character and steadiness to lead or as part of his own political hypocrisy over the years — criticizing Clinton's affair while carrying on his own, changing positions on issues, and that sort of thing," Vinson said.
"In the general election, it won't be the infidelity itself but rather what it says when combined with other episodes about his character and leadership abilities."
Jack Hoey Jr., chief operations officer at Mount Pleasant-based megachurch Seacoast, said Gingrich, like all candidates, is flawed. But voters will must determine on their own how to proceed in light of those flaws.
“Is infidelity wrong? Yes,” Hoey said. “Is infidelity worse than other sins? No. If you’re applying that and trying to understand that, you can’t just look at it as if it is a flawed candidate amidst a group of perfect candidates.”
Although faith played a role in political decisions, Hoey said the election was not really a “Christian issue” but rather an issue for society at large.
“People are going to have their own take on whether someone with a checkered past is most capable to do this job,” Hoey said. “Some people would put his past aside if they think he would do a good job. Some people would say, competence aside, ‘I could never vote for someone I couldn’t trust to date my daughter.’
“As a church, we don’t try to say, 'here’s the way you should think about it.' From our point of view, that’s something people are going to handle in their own ways.”