Rick Santorum won the support of a group of U.S. family and religious leaders who called for social conservatives to coalesce behind one Republican presidential candidate as an alternative to Mitt Romney.
The endorsement came on the eve of the final Sunday worship services before the Jan. 21 primary in South Carolina, where 60 percent of 2008 Republican primary voters said in exit polls that they consider themselves “born again” or evangelical Christians.
“They’ve looked at not just what we’ve been able to accomplish during this primary season so far, but they’ve looked at the track record of someone that’s been a strong, consistent voice across the board on all the conservative issues,” Santorum said yesterday while campaigning in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
On “Fox News Sunday,” Santorum called the endorsement a “very big deal” that will lead to grassroots campaigning in South Carolina from individuals who will “help our cause.”
Santorum received 85 of 114 votes on the third ballot at a gathering of religious leaders on a ranch near Bleiblerville, Texas, defeating former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told reporters on a conference call yesterday.
Not the Alternative
Santorum is not the obvious alternative to Romney, Gingrich said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” today, adding that polls have shown he is “the strongest rival” to Romney in South Carolina. Gingrich said that, if he loses in South Carolina, he would reassess his candidacy.
The endorsement could give a boost to Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. Evangelical voters helped propel former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee into second place in South Carolina four years ago, and did so for Santorum this year in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, where he finished eight votes behind front-runner Romney.
Santorum called himself the “conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” although he said he wouldn’t ask others to drop out of the race to help focus voters most concerned about abortion and other life issues.
The voting in Texas was winnowed to Santorum and Gingrich after the first two ballots, Perkins said. Officials for each contender for the nomination, with the exception of former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., spoke in support of his own candidacy.
Organizers included Gary Bauer, president of American Values in Washington, and Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association of Tupelo, Mississippi, Perkins said. Also attending was Richard Land, president of the Nashville, Tennessee-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Perkins declined to name others present at the two-day event on a ranch owned by H. Paul Pressler, a Houston attorney and former judge. Perkins described the group as “conservative leaders, businessmen and political activists.”
No coordinated effort to support Santorum is expected, Perkins said, though the groups represented may step up fundraising and direct-mail programs to help him.
Perkins described Santorum as “reliable” and said that stumbles by Texas Governor Rick Perry “were too great to overcome” for him in a general election.
“It is not news that there is not strong support among conservatives across the country for Mitt Romney,” Perkins said. “A true conservative has the best chance of winning the general election against Barack Obama.”
Perry said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that voters will decide who wins in South Carolina.
“I’ve been in this business long enough to understand that you’re not going to get everyone to love you,” he said. “It’s not organizations that elect; it’s the people and we’re going directly to the people.”
Asked whether he would continue on to Florida even if he placed last in South Carolina, Perry said, “That’s our intention.”
On “This Week,” Perry said he will make his decision on whether to remain in the race after the South Carolina primary.
Romney’s Mormon faith wasn’t discussed by the evangelical group, which included members of several Christian denominations, Perkins said.
“Conservative evangelical leaders spoke very clearly today that Mitt Romney will not be the nominee,” R.C. Hammond, a Gingrich spokesman, said in a statement after the endorsement. “It is encouraging for the Republican Party to have two choices in Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.”
Gingrich spoke yesterday at a church dominated by blacks in Columbia, South Carolina, where he defended his record in front of about 50 people, including some who later said they have no intention of voting for any of the Republicans in the race.
After the meeting, Gingrich walked through a chicken dinner in the church basement shaking hands. He said the event was worthwhile and that other Republicans should reach out beyond their core constituencies. “As Americans, we need to talk to each other,” he said.
Ron Paul Absent
Absent from the South Carolina conversation yesterday was U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who has made just one campaign appearance in the state since his second-place showing in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10.
Campaigning yesterday in Sumter, South Carolina, Romney didn’t address the Santorum endorsement. He also ignored shouted questions from a reporter as he signed autographs.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, who supports Romney, on CNN’s “State of the Union” shrugged off the endorsement of Santorum by the group of family and religious leaders. He said the Republican Party needs to be concerned with not putting too much focus on the most conservative elements of its membership.
“Jobs and the economy are the transcendent issues of this campaign,” said McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. He said the economy is “a much higher priority for the voters” of South Carolina and on that score “every poll shows Mitt Romney is most electable.”
Romney and Gingrich are looking beyond South Carolina’s primary and have spent time this week in Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 31. Wins by Romney in South Carolina and Florida, after his victories in this month’s opening contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, would put him on a path to quickly wrap up the Republican nomination.
The South Carolina contest will play out in an economic environment that’s worse than the national average. The state’s unemployment rate was 9.9 percent in November, the most recent month available, compared with December’s national rate of 8.5 percent. That’s high enough to put South Carolina in the top 10 states for the most unemployment in November.
On the final weekend before the primary, advertising also grew more frequent across the state.
A political action committee backing Perry began airing an ad that attacks Gingrich on ethics and accuses Santorum of voting for pay raises and locally targeted federal spending projects known as earmarks.
Winning Our Future, a committee backing Gingrich, is airing two new ads in South Carolina. One links Romney to Obama’s 2010 health-care overhaul and says Romney is “not conservative” and “not electable.”
The Red White and Blue Fund, a group supporting Santorum’s campaign, began airing a commercial that promotes his opposition to abortion and radical Islam.
Huntsman received the endorsement today of The State newspaper in South Carolina’s capital of Columbia. Huntsman is a “true conservative, with a record and platform of bold economic reform straight out of the free-market bible,” the newspaper said.
--With assistance from Margaret Talev, Greg Giroux and Tom Schoenberg in Washington and Margaret Newkirk in Atlanta . Editors: Jim Rubin, Steve Walsh
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