Santorum Gains Support from Social Conservatives

By BRODY MULLINS and NEIL KING JR.

Leaders of prominent conservative Christian groups threw their overwhelming support Saturday behind former Sen. Rick Santorum in the Republican presidential contest, an attempt to rally around a single challenger to front-runner Mitt Romney.

Not all of the conservatives who gathered for a two-day meeting in Texas endorsed Mr. Santorum, a sign that the votes of social conservatives are likely to remain split among three or more Republican candidates in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary. If it remains, that division is likely to present a significant benefit to Mr. Romney, who is winning support from centrist Republicans as well as from some conservatives.

The support from the Christian conservatives gives a boost to Mr. Santorum and is a setback for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who also are trying to appeal to social conservatives.

The Texas meeting was organized by religious conservatives who have grown frustrated as Mr. Romney moves toward securing the party’s nomination after back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. Many religious conservatives think that Mr. Romney is too moderate on social issues.

Over the course of the two days, leaders of about 150 socially conservative groups, as well as activists and financiers, heard pitches from the candidates’ surrogates and then winnowed their favorites to Messrs. Gingrich and Santorum.

After three ballots, Mr. Santorum emerged with the votes of about 75 percent of the conservatives, with Mr. Gingrich gathering the remaining 25 percent, according to Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council and unofficial spokesman for the meeting.

“Many people were surprised that the group came to a pretty strong agreement on a candidate,” Mr. Perkins said. “It will have some influence on the process. How much of an impact? We’ll see.”

Others said the inability of the group to settle on a single candidate means that the socially conservative wing of the party will split among several candidates in next week’s South Carolina primary. Sixty percent of voters in South Carolina’s 2008 GOP primary called themselves evangelical Christians, exit polls showed.

“I’m just saying that if you really, really want to elect a conservative, and not only win the election but the battle for the party, then everyone should get behind one candidate,” said Keith Appell, a Washington consultant for several conservative groups.

Even if the Christian leaders meeting in Texas had agreed to endorse a single candidate, it is not clear whether voters would follow.

“I don’t think what happened in that meeting will have any impact at all right here in South Carolina,” said Al Phillips, a pastor at First Baptist Church North Spartanburg. “I think people here make up their own minds.”

Mr. Phillips said, “The one thing that almost all of the members of my church agree on is that they are uncomfortable with Romney” due to his Mormon faith and what some say are his evolutions in policy on some social issues.

But he said that voters are split among Messrs. Santorum, Gingrich and Perry. “Santorum has really come on, but I don’t see him becoming the consensus choice, so I think what we are going to get is a Romney win here,” Mr. Phillips said. “I don’t like that, but you really don’t have a candidate who can draw all those people.”

Mr. Romney could all but wrap up the Republican presidential nomination if he wins the South Carolina primary. Mr. Romney currently leads in the polls of South Carolina, but Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum aren’t far behind. The race moves next to Florida, a large state with expensive media markets, meaning that well-funded candidates such as Mr. Romney have an advantage.

If social conservatives dilute their vote in South Carolina, Mr. Romney could cruise to victory in the state and elsewhere by winning a majority of the support from people who base their votes on economic issues.

Rep. Tim Scott (R., S.C.), an evangelical Christian and tea party supporter, said Saturday that many of South Carolina’s evangelical voters are putting concerns about the economy first this year and that Mitt Romney will do well among them.

“There is no question that the reason Romney is doing so well in an evangelical state is because the issues have changed substantially,” said Mr. Scott, who has not endorsed a candidate.

South Carolina voters “don’t want to see 10 percent unemployment… so you have to admit that the jobs market is far more important than other issues for many people,” he said at a candidate forum in Charleston.

For much of the last week, Mr. Romney and his rivals have crisscrossed South Carolina appealing for votes. Mr. Romney has spent a lot of time in Charleston and other areas along the coast that are home to many of the party’s more moderate voters. Messrs. Santorum and Gingrich have spent more time inland, where there are more socially and religiously conservative Republicans.

In appearances Friday in Duncan, S.C., Messrs. Gingrich and Santorum made contrasting pitches to a crowd at a local high school.

Mr. Gingrich told the audience that if conservatives remained divided, Mr. Romney would win the primary. “If we end up splitting the conservative vote, we’re going to stumble into nominating somebody who 99% of the people in this room are going to be very uncomfortable with,” he said.

santorum_CarolinaSpeaking after Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum said conservatives shouldn’t compromise their political beliefs in order to back a candidate they think will win. Rather, he said, they should vote for the candidate who best shares their views.

“Over the past few weeks, you have been told your job is to pick someone who can win, to compromise those values you believe in,” Mr. Santorum said. “Who’s saying that to you? People who don’t share your values.”

For his part, Mr. Romney has also appealed to religious conservatives. On Monday, he plans to attend a “presidential kick-off” event sponsored by the South Carolina Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Share