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Evangelical support

Politics | A group of influential evangelical leaders and social conservatives endorses Rick Santorum

COLUMBIA, S.C.-What do you get when evangelical leaders like Gary Bauer, James Dobson, Donald Wildmon, and other social conservatives huddle at a Texas retreat during the middle of the GOP presidential primary season? According to Bauer, there's one thing you won't get: "A stop-Romney meeting."

But if Saturday's meeting of nearly 150 evangelical leaders and social conservatives in Bernham, Texas, wasn't an effort to stop the former Massachusetts governor, it did become something else: an endorsement of Rick Santorum.

A week after Bauer endorsed former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania for the GOP nomination, evangelicals leaders at the meeting he helped organized did the same, throwing their support behind the socially conservative Catholic.

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If any candidate, including Santorum, hopes to overtake current GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney in the South Carolina primary this coming Saturday, the moment is critical. Winning the widespread support of social conservatives could boost second-tier candidates in a race that's getting harder to win after Romney's victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.

By Monday, Real Clear Politics (RCP) reported Romney holding a nearly 8-point lead in the South Carolina race, though a Reuters poll put his lead at nearly 20 points. The Reuters poll also reported Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas tied for second place, while RCP had former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in second place. Whatever the pecking order, Romney's opponents are scrambling to gain enough conservative votes to catch the frontrunner they call a moderate.

Meanwhile, Romney could pick up some of Jon Huntsman's supporters in South Carolina. The former Utah governor, who polls showed was accounting for 5 percent of the South Carolina vote, withdrew from the race on Monday and endorsed Romney. (See "Huntsman out," by Edward Lee Pitts.)

Last Wednesday at a rally in Rock Hill, S.C.-just one day after placing fourth in the New Hampshire primary-Gingrich drew a stark line for South Carolina voters: "You're either going to center in and pick one conservative, or by default give a moderate the nomination."

It's unclear whether Santorum's fresh support from national evangelical leaders will help him gain ground on Romney in South Carolina. It's also unclear how hard Romney will fight for evangelical votes. With a comfortable lead and $19 million of campaign cash in hand (after raising $24 million in the last three months of 2011), the frontrunner may stick to his economic message while other candidates take on issues like abortion, marriage, and religious liberty.

If Romney does win the nomination, Bauer says he'll support him and encourage other evangelicals to do the same. He shares the sentiment that unites many across South Carolina, even if they support different GOP candidates: The one person they're determined to stop is President Barack Obama.

If Gingrich is a second-tier candidate, his events don't feel like second-tier affairs. Some 300 people battled rain and thick fog to pack a Rock Hill country club for last Wednesday's Gingrich rally at 9 a.m. on a weekday. As crowds filled a standing-room-only section near a huge American flag, a campaign staffer announced that Gingrich would arrive soon and stay late: "He'll stay here until he meets every single one of you."

That's part of a strategy that Gingrich adopted after his campaign nearly imploded last year. Staffers complained that the candidate didn't campaign enough. Now he typically speaks for 30 minutes, takes questions for 30 minutes, and then shakes hands until the last person leaves.

In a state where six-out-of-10 GOP voters identify as born-again Christians or evangelicals, Gingrich hit the right buttons: Before mentioning the economy, the former Georgia congressman talked about the challenge of "anti-Christian religious bigotry." He noted that Catholic Charities in Massachusetts ended its adoption services because it refused to follow a state law requiring the agency to help same-sex couples adopt. "We will not tolerate a speech dictatorship in this country," he said to cheers, and also insisted America should speak out for the religious liberty of persecuted Christians in places like Iraq, Egypt, and Nigeria.

A series of questions from the audience showed that economic issues were the dominant concern. Gingrich easily rattled off data about South Carolina manufacturing woes but said less about his brutal attacks on Romney's work as portfolio manager at Bain Capital. Gingrich had slammed Romney's work at the firm that included closing some companies, but the criticism backfired: Other GOP candidates, including Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul, defended Romney's work as part of free enterprise.

The most glaring target of the morning remained Obama and his policies, and the biggest applause line of the day came when Gingrich vowed to undo the president's healthcare legislation. But concerns about Gingrich's character and temperament aren't going away, so he prefers to talk about the importance of South Carolina's primary: "I believe the next 10 days [before the primary] are as important to American history as any other we've seen in American modern politics."

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