When a nationally influential evangelical leader gathered dozens of pastors at his home church to hear from a presidential candidate, he had a simple message: Rick Santorum is one of us, and your parishioners should vote for him.
Nearly a hundred pastors from all over Louisiana and from as far away as Texas and Colorado accepted Family Research Council President Tony Perkins' invitation to hear a personal pitch Sunday from the former Pennsylvania senator, who met with them in a private briefing before he addressed the more than 1,400 faithful who crowded into the sanctuary at Greenwell Springs Baptist Church.
"What we need to do in this country is to rebuild that culture of life and rebuild that culture of marriage and families," Santorum said, standing in a small back room as the invited pastors gathered in an informal circle wearing handwritten name tags. "No one else talks about social issues."
In speaking to the group and then spending more than an hour with the congregation, answering Perkins' questions from the stage where Baptist Rev. Dennis Terry normally preaches, Santorum was courting the religious conservatives who are keeping him in a drawn-out fight for the GOP nomination.
Mitt Romney leads the race for delegates but has long struggled to win over a conservative GOP base that still questions his flip-flops on social issues.
Religious conservatives helped propel Santorum to victory over Romney and House Speaker Newt Gingrich in recent primaries in Mississippi and Alabama and are critical to his presidential ambitions.
Many of the Christians who shouted "Amen!" and stood to applaud Santorum's comments on Iran and his pledge to repeal President Barack Obama's national healthcare overhaul are the voters who could help him win Saturday's Louisiana primary and upcoming contests in the drawn-out GOP race.
"I know what's in his heart. It's the fact that he's a Christian," said 69-year-old Vickie Raabe, a retiree from Central who has been attending another nearby Baptist church for decades and says she will vote for Santorum.
What about Romney, the front-runner?
"I just don't like him," she said.
Implicit in many of the attendees' dislike for the former Massachusetts governor was a discomfort with his religion. Why does Valerie, a longtime worshipper who wouldn't give her last name, support Santorum instead? "Mormonism," she said, unprompted. "I don't believe that (Romney's) a Christian."
Many evangelicals say Mormons are not Christians.
Terry, the pastor at Greenwell Baptist, said in an interview: "I want to hear about (Romney's) true belief in Jesus. Mormons believe that Jesus is a created being... In the South, you know, we believe that Jesus is the son of God."
Santorum, who is Catholic, doesn't have that problem.
"I know Rick really well, and he is the real deal," said Terry, whose fiery opening remarks included an insistence that America is a Christian nation and "We don't worship Buddha! We don't worship Mohammed! We don't worship Allah!"
Perkins, the head of the socially conservative Family Research Council, can't officially endorse a presidential candidate, but he made his personal feelings clear. "I'll tell you this," he said, "I wouldn't invite just anybody to my church."
Perkins was part of a group of evangelical leaders who gathered in Texas earlier this year to select a conservative alternative to Romney, who one time supported abortion rights. They voted to back Santorum, but it wasn't immediately clear how their support could directly help him.
That's where the pastors — and their churches — come in. The field has narrowed, with Santorum winning in nine states and Gingrich losing in the South, his home region.
"I hope that you said something about that today from the pulpit that people need to be voting next Saturday," Perkins told the pastors' briefing.
At Greenwell Baptist, there was an intense focus on bringing faith into the public square — and on making sure the faithful are engaged in the political process. Voter registration forms and "how to vote" guides sat on a table just inside the main entrance.
Santorum spent more than an hour answering mostly friendly questions from Perkins about his religion, his understanding of what it means to oppose abortion rights, and his positions on Iran and Israel.
"I don't believe life begins at conception," Santorum said, "I know life begins at conception."
Terry said he had invited all the GOP presidential hopefuls as well as President Barack Obama to speak at the church.
In his remarks to the congregation, Santorum steered clear of mentioning his rivals. But he told the pastor's briefing that Romney is "compromised on the issue of freedom" because of his health care record in Massachusetts and said Romney reduces the election to "management of the economy."
"If this is about management of the economy, we're going to lose," Santorum said. "This election is about bigger things."
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