Newt goes to church


Newt makes his way to church on Sunday.

By KEITH MORELLI | The Tampa Tribune
Published: January 29, 2012
Updated: January 29, 2012 – 3:03 PM
TAMPA –Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gringrich sat in an aisle seat near the front of Idlewild Baptist Church Sunday morning, listening to a sermon praising the sanctity of life and the misery of abortion.

The Rev. Russell Moore was preaching to the choir, as Gingrich’s staunch pro-life support underpins his campaign to capture the conservative right’s vote.

Gingrich was in town continuing his quest for the presidency and a win in the crucial Florida primary election Tuesday. He spent more than an hour listening to the sermon in Tampa’s largest church, whose worship center holds 5,500 people. Thousands attended the 9:30 a.m. service Gingrich attended, though plenty of balcony seats were empty.

Some came to church unaware Gingrich would be in attendance and steered clear of the media waiting outside. Others were eager to meet the former speaker of the House, shake his hand, pose for a photo and get an autograph.

Mark Fitzpatrick brought his two sons, 15-year-old Caleb and 13-year-old Jeremiah, to meet Gingrich and was hoping to get seats near the candidate.

“I want to get my boys excited about politics,” he said. His son, Caleb, dressed in a snappy suit and toting a bible, said he wants to be a politician someday.

“I am interested in politics,” he said. “Absolutely.”

Gingrich’s chartered bus arrived at Idlewild Baptist just before the service began. He was ushered in and took his seat with little fanfare, save for the media, which for the most part remained outside.

Inside, the Rev. Ken Whitten greeted the faithful and recognized Gingrich as a distinguished guest. With the candidate was Bill McCollum, the former U.S. representative from Florida and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor in 2010.

Gingrich’s politics reflect the pro-life sermon delivered by Moore. Hundreds lined up outside the worship center after the sermon to stream past Gingrich, shake his hand and wish him well in the election.

He did not speak inside the worship center. Church officials have said politicians and celebrities are welcome to attend, but they are never allowed deliver speeches during Sunday services. That would leave the impression the church is making an endorsement.

“We endorse the process,” Whitten said to the congregation, “not the people.”

During the sermon, a man seated across the aisle from Gingrich became ill, and church workers and volunteers rushed to his side. The service stopped, and Whitten asked everyone to bow their heads and pray for the man. He eventually was placed in a wheelchair and taken out of the worship center.

After the service, Gingrich addressed the throng of reporters following him around the state during his campaign. He referred to his chief rival, Mitt Romney, as a “pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase Massachusetts liberal,” and said the Republican Party would never give the nomination to such a man.

“This campaign is about the future of American,” he said, “about the future of the Republican Party.”

He brushed aside polls that showed him trailing Romney.

“We will go all the way to the convention,” Gingrich said, amid speculation that if he lost in the Florida Republican primary on Tuesday, he would drop out. He said the campaign “will be a straight-out run” until the convention in Tampa in August.

“I genuinely want to change Washington,” he said. “Romney would just manage the decay.”

Idlewild Baptist has long been a magnet for conservative candidates making campaign stops. The Lutz church boasts a 13,000-strong congregation, and it’s where prominent Tampa businessmen and philanthropists go on Sunday mornings, along with candidates for public office and those in office.

The church is considered a hub of Republican activity and never has shied away from its role as a place for conservative politicians to meet like-minded constituents and garner support.

Michele Bachmann, former Republican presidential hopeful and Gingrich rival, attended a service there in August before she withdrew from the race.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush and former President George W. Bush have listened to sermons there. Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi made stops there while on the campaign trail.

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