Rick Santorum tried to capitalize on a call from evangelical leaders to coalesce behind an alternative to Mitt Romney as Republican presidential candidates made their pitches at South Carolina worship services.
Santorum’s endorsement came on the final weekend before the Jan. 21 primary in a state where 60 percent of 2008 Republican primary voters said in exit polls that they consider themselves “born again” or evangelical Christians.
“I’m the consistent conservative,” Santorum said on “Fox News Sunday,” when asked about the endorsement. “I’m someone who’s willing to stand up for all of the issues, not just the moral and cultural issues, but economic issues and the moral crisis of this debt and this explosion of government.”
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich declined to answer a reporter who asked whether too much is being made of the evangelicals’ endorsement as he left a church in North Charleston.
Santorum received 85 of 114 votes on the third ballot at a gathering of religious leaders on a ranch near Bleiblerville, Texas, defeating Gingrich, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told reporters on a conference call yesterday.
Santorum isn’t the obvious alternative to Romney, Gingrich said today on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program, adding that polls have shown he’s “the strongest rival” to Romney in South Carolina. If he loses in the state, Gingrich said, he’d reassess his candidacy.
Boost to Santorum
The endorsement may give a boost to Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, among social conservatives who give greater weight to abortion, gay marriage and religious freedom. Evangelicals 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 almost tied Romney for first place.
Speaking to more than 1,000 at the Cathedral of Praise church, Gingrich stressed his opposition to abortion.
“If you believe life begins at conception, then you are inevitably into a series of conclusions that are difficult and challenging,” he said. “It means that at minimum you would defund Planned Parenthood of all taxpayer money and take that money and give it to adoption services.”
Gingrich, speaking the day after Santorum visited the same church, also argued that voters should look for someone who will shake things up in Washington.
“I have a reputation for being very blunt and very plainspoken,” he said. “I have earned this reputation. Sometimes it makes me a little controversial, and let me tell you, when the system is as sick as the current system is, a little controversy will be a good thing.”
Gingrich also acknowledged his long record of controversy.
“I don’t come here today as a perfect person,” said Gingrich, who is on his third marriage. “I don’t come here today without -- I guess the advertisement is -- baggage.”
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. received the endorsement today of the State newspaper in South Carolina’s capital of Columbia, while Romney, who took the day off from the campaign trail, won the backing of the Greenville News.
Reappearing in South Carolina later today will be 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. The libertarian-leaning candidate was scheduled to attend an endorsement announcement in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Not Dropping Out
After the voting in Texas, Santorum said yesterday he wouldn’t ask others to drop out of the race to help focus social conservatives.
Representatives for each contender for the nomination, with the exception of Huntsman, spoke in support of their candidate, said Perkins, who described the group as “conservative leaders, businessmen and political activists.”
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.
Romney’s Mormon faith wasn’t discussed by the evangelical group, which included members of several Christian denominations, Perkins said.
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.
Perry said today 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’s Jan. 31 primary even if he placed last in South Carolina, Perry said, “That’s our intention.”
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.
U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona, who supports Romney, dismissed the Santorum announcement on CNN’s “State of the Union.” 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.”
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 President Barack 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.
--With assistance from Margaret Talev in Sumter, South Carolina, and Greg Giroux and Tom Schoenberg in Washington. Editors: Jim Rubin, Steve Walsh
To contact the reporters on this story: John McCormick in North Charleston, South Carolina, at email@example.com; David Mildenberg in Brenham, Texas, at firstname.lastname@example.org
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