MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa — When his top aides walked out this spring and left his campaign in tatters, Newt Gingrich considered dropping out. But he says it was his wife, Callista, who persuaded him to soldier on.
"She told me to stay in the race," Gingrich said recently in eastern Iowa.
Now as voting nears in the race to decide the Republican presidential nominee, Callista Gingrich has stepped up her presence on the campaign trail, especially in Iowa where social conservatives hold powerful sway. A visible reminder of her twice-divorced husband's past infidelity, she simultaneously serves as a symbol of his devotion to family. She gives some conservatives pause, and others assurance.
The Gingrich camp is betting that anyone who doubts whether the former House speaker truly has mended his ways need only look to his wife, who stands at his side, ramrod straight and smiling. Prim and petite with striking platinum-blonde hair, the campaign is dispatching her strategically: She appears with her husband, more than 20 years her senior, in a cheery Christmas campaign television ad, and the two frequently host his-and-her book signings after campaign events.
Her children's book about Ellis, a patriotic elephant that loves American history — conveniently hit The New York Times best-seller list as her husband's White House bid was starting to take off. She is featured prominently on his website. And it is rare for Newt Gingrich to deliver remarks that aren't sprinkled with references to "Callista and I."
His devotion to her is apparent, some say distracting to his White House bid. As his poll numbers started to waver last weekend, he left the campaign trail in Iowa to take a seat at a holiday concert in Virginia, where she played the French horn.
Callista Gingrich was linked to upheaval early in the campaign. It was jewelry Gingrich bought for her that spurred days of bad press coverage focused on a no-interest line of credit at Tiffany's worth up to $500,000, reinforcing the image that he's out of touch with regular people smarting from the economic downturn. His trip with her to the Greek isles fueled the idea that he wasn't taking the campaign seriously.
Aides who fled the campaign earlier this year pointed to Callista Gingrich as the source of the tension between her husband and his staff.
Still, his rebound would seem to give credence to her value as a trusted adviser.
Yet for all her time in the public eye, she is largely unknown, having granted few interviews and rarely speaking from the podium at her husband's events. She works the crowd afterward, instead, posing for photos and shaking hands.
"I think she's just lovely," said 62-year-old Janet McDonald, after shaking Mrs. Gingrich's hand at a Hy-Vee Grocery Store in Mount Pleasant during a recent Iowa campaign swing. "They may not have started out right. But if they have made their peace with God, than there really is nothing else I need to know."
Gingrich, 68, has acknowledged having an extramarital affair with the woman who is now his third wife when he was speaker of the House and she worked for the House Agriculture Committee.
The scandal that colored the beginning of their relationship may explain her wariness of the media.
Callista Gingrich will chat with reporters about the bitter cold weather in Iowa, where she attended college, and discuss an upcoming Christmas celebration near her Virginia home. Questions about anything more substantive are met with a tight smile.
"You'll have to ask R.C," she says politely, referring to Gingrich campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond.
The campaign declined a request from The Associated Press to interview Callista Gingrich.
At a campaign stop in Oskaloosa, Iowa, Gingrich was asked about his wife as she looked on, perched on a counter surrounded by reporters the campaign refused to let her talk to. The former Georgia congressman proudly ticked off her resume as a concert pianist, professional singer, filmmaker and author,
"She's a very talented person who works very hard," he said. "We're waiting to unleash her."
Though she rarely speaks at her husband's events, Callista Gingrich made an exception at an informal gathering of high school government students in Sioux City, Iowa, who were listening to the candidate. One had asked what he should do to prepare himself to run for president himself. Newt Gingrich urged the teenager to gain broad life experience and work on a campaign.
Then his wife interjected. "You should study this country's history. I think that is very important," she said.
Her husband, of course, has done just that.
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