Jill Smolowe
January 09, 2012 12:00 PM

At a recent event in Mount Vernon, Va., for her children’s book Sweet Land of Liberty, Callista Gingrich sat sandwiched between two larger-than-life characters. To her left was a costumed Ellis, the cuddly elephant star of her story; to her right sat her husband, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. With Callista, 45, a diminutive blonde woman sorely at risk of being upstaged, Newt, 68, made sure his wife of 11 years remained the center of attention. When a man approached with seven books by Newt and two by Callista, Newt told him, “She’ll sign all of them,” then waited for Callista to pen her name before signing his own.

Those close to the Gingriches say that such displays of spousal support are not just show. “Newt is a changed man,” says Mary Ourisman, a former U.S. ambassador. “Callista has been amazing for him.” Though Newt was still taking some heat ahead of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus for his six-year extra-marital affair with Callista when she was a congressional aide, friends say she is now among his strongest assets. “We take time for each other on a regular basis,” Callista told People during a chat after the book signing. “We enjoy being with one another.” Their togetherness has vexed some staffers worried about Newt’s time, but he insists, “You have to slow down to really be with each other.”

He is aware that some voters may judge him for two failed marriages, both of which involved infidelity. “He admits he made mistakes, and he asked for God’s forgiveness,” says daughter Jackie Gingrich Cushman, 45, echoing a sentiment Newt expressed in debates. Asked if she forgives him, she says, “I do. We all moved on. Obviously it was a very difficult time.” She is now close to Callista, whom she calls a good influence on her dad, and offers an example: “He now shares his calamari. It’s a silly thing, but he’s more relaxed.” Newt allows, “I had to learn a lot about having had failed relationships and trying to think about what matters in life. What are you going to invest in?” To demonstrate his priorities, he shares the plans for that evening: a concert at which his wife would play the French horn. His job? Carry the horn.

What Callista brings, friends say, is humor, down-home practicality and an ease with people honed in tiny Whitehall, Wis. At Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where she was a scholarship student, “she knew how to make people feel comfortable,” says music professor Timothy Peter. “She had a gift for grace and conversation.”

In McLean, Va., where the Gingriches share a two-story brick house, they can be spotted at the local Giant food-shopping together or on the golf course, where Callista often edits Newt’s books on her BlackBerry while awaiting her turn. “We have a lot of fun,” she says. “We make documentary films together, we write books together, we travel together.”

An accomplished horn player and an alto with the choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Callista has kindled Newt’s budding love of opera. (Yet, “Dancing Queen” by ABBA remains his ring tone.) More significantly her Catholic faith led him to convert in 2009. “His conversion made him into somebody who reflected on his life, on people he had hurt in the past,” says former aide Rick Tyler. “That has given him a sense of calm.”

But there have been rough spots: A spring cruise the Gingriches took to Turkey and Greece at Callista’s urging as his campaign was starting caused a firestorm. Soon after, several staffers quit. Ourisman counters that Callista made him a better candidate: “She has taught him a lot about how to deal with people.” His sister Candace Gingrich-Jones, who is gay, credits Callista with helping to mend a sibling relationship soured by a disagreement over marriage equality. “Callista makes the effort to stay engaged,” Gingrich-Jones told The Atlantic Monthly. “In the past 10 years we’ve seen each other more.” Gingrich pals believe Callista could have a similar salutary effect as First Lady. “She is stunning and smart,” says one. “People need to give her a chance.”

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