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."