Social Conservative Leaders Back Santorum
MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. -- A week before the pivotal South Carolina primary, Rick Santorum's quest to emerge as the chief alternative to Mitt Romney received a boost Saturday from a group of evangelical leaders and social conservatives who voted to back his candidacy in a last-ditch effort to stop the GOP front-runner's march to the nomination.
About three-quarters of some 150 pastors and Christian conservative political organizers meeting in Texas sided with Santorum over a home-state favorite, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- an outcome that illustrated continuing divisions within the ranks of conservatives who make up the base of the GOP.
The gathering also reflected the lingering dissatisfaction with Romney over abortion rights and other issues, and the belief of conservatives that they need to unite behind one contender before the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary if they are to derail the former Massachusetts governor they view as too moderate. Romney leads narrowly in polls here after victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"There is a hope and an expectation that this will have an impact on South Carolina," said Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who attended the Texas meeting.
It's unclear, however, whether conservative voters will heed the advice of these leaders and back Santorum particularly with other conservative candidates still in the race. The backing of a chunk of conservative leaders could help Santorum, who long has run a shoestring campaign, raise money and set up stronger get-out-the-vote operations.
But with the South Carolina primary looming Jan. 21, time may be running short for the nod to have a significant impact. It perhaps would have been more effective after the Iowa caucuses, before Romney gained steam with a second victory in New Hampshire.
Santorum, for his part, reveled in the development.
"It's a validator," the former Pennsylvania senator told reporters late Saturday while campaigning along South Carolina's coast. "People who have been out there in the fields laboring for the conservative causes see us as someone who can not only fight for the causes but effectively fight and win."
Still, he acknowledged the divisions illustrated in Texas: "I knew there were strong differences of opinion there, people who have strong support for their candidates."
Indeed, the split-decision and frustration by some who attended the meeting punctuates the fissures that have vexed this powerful bloc of the GOP base throughout the campaign and continue to with a week left before the South Carolina vote. Social conservatives here are an influential force, but divided they would leave an opening for Romney as they did in 2008, when Arizona Sen. John McCain won the state en route to the GOP nomination.
This year, even Santorum's backers concede time may be running out for conservative voters to rally behind their candidate.
"If that consolidation occurs, he will win this primary," South Carolina state Sen. Chip Campsen said as he endorsed Santorum at the campaign office near Charleston. "And there are fewer options as time goes on."
The meeting took place over two days at the Texas ranch of former state appeals court Judge Paul Pressler.
Surrogates for each campaign were said to have made presentations and answered questions. The goal was to determine whether conservative leaders could rally behind one alternative candidate to Romney, in hopes of ensuring one of their own wins the nomination instead of someone they consider more moderate. Many conservative leaders fear a repeat of four years ago when, in their view, a divided conservative base led the GOP to nominate McCain.
Meeting attendees said it took several ballots for 75 percent of attendees to agree on Santorum after winnowing down the field from three candidates: Santorum, Gingrich and Perry. They also said that there was some support for Romney.
"Santorum was the preferred candidate by a significant majority," Gary Bauer, the former presidential candidate, said.
"They were all looking for the best Reagan conservative," he said. "It came down to things like, who do you most trust."
But David Lane, a California-based pastor who has set up candidate forums with ministers in Iowa, said he was frustrated with the outcome because he does not believe Santorum has an organization or fundraising capability to allow him to campaign deep into the primary season.
He said the choice to back Santorum projects political weakness.
"This country is going to hell, and the evangelical voice is meaningless," Lane said.
Santorum downplayed the division, noting that he edged Perry in a group including many Texans, as well as longtime activists who have had long relationships with Gingrich.
"I can't believe it was only 25 percent" who didn't agree, he said, adding that he would not ask any candidates to consider leaving the race in order to consolidate the conservative vote.
The Gingrich campaign tried to downplay the vote, and insisted the former House speaker also had the backing of many in Houston.
"Newt had strong support in the room," Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said. "Our job now is to translate the strong showing we had in Texas into votes in South Carolina and Florida."
Romney's campaign didn't weigh in. But the candidate countered the notion that he's a moderate during a candidate forum in Charleston, S.C.
"I don't know whether in a minute I can convince you, but I have a conservative record," Romney told an undecided voter who suggested he governed as a moderate in Massachusetts.
Even with the backing of many conservative leaders, Santorum faces big challenges.
He surged late in Iowa, lifted by eleventh-hour endorsements by ministers, including some who had once considered asking the once overlooked former senator to quit the race to help conservatives coalesce.
Santorum ended up narrowly losing to Romney in Iowa before faring poorly in New Hampshire. He has aggressively campaigned in South Carolina, visiting almost 30 times and has networks of supporters in almost all of the state's counties. He's had an influx of cash, reportedly raising $3 million this week, but still woefully short of Romney's war chest.
South Carolina's Republican voters are some of the nation's most conservative.
In exit polling from the 2008 Republican presidential contest, 60 percent of the state's primary voters said they were born-again Christians. Romney, whose Mormon faith is not considered a Christian denomination by some in South Carolina, carried just 11 percent of their votes four years ago, fewer than his 15 percent tally nationwide. Mormons consider themselves Christians.
On Saturday, Santorum sought to capitalize on the momentum by making direct appeals to evangelical conservatives, like many of those at the Country Ham House in Greenville. Despite his efforts, concerns persisted about the strength of his candidacy.
"As far as his values and principles, he stands for everything I do," said Brock Stevens, a Greenville Republican who left Santorum's event there ready to support him. "But honestly, I worry about his viability against Obama."
Associated Press writers Rachel Zoll, Charles Babington, Julie Pace and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.