GREENVILLE, S.C.-If Rick Perry was delivering a swan song on Wednesday night at a pro-life GOP presidential forum in Greenville, S.C., it was a poignant farewell. Looking relaxed and sincere, Perry told the crowd of nearly 400 social conservatives and evangelicals packed into a hotel ballroom that when he thinks about unborn children endangered by abortion, "I think about Moses."
Reminding the audience that the Israelite baby saved from infanticide by a Hebrew maid became the prophet that God used to lead Israel's exodus from Egypt, Perry said, "And you look back on history at all of the incredible men and women who have impacted this world, and wonder if they had been born today. …"
The Texas governor told the crowd that America should examine itself for allowing more than 50 million abortions since 1973, and thanked pro-life activists for their efforts: "I'm just proud to be a foot soldier in your army."
Less than 12 hours later, Perry became a foot soldier for someone else: GOP candidate Newt Gingrich. Perry announced he would drop his presidential bid at a press conference on Thursday morning, and threw his support to Gingrich.
That nod could provide a crucial boost for Gingrich's race to overtake GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney in South Carolina's Republican presidential primary on Saturday. The Real Clear Politics average of polls show the former House speaker trailing Romney by seven points in the Palmetto State. If Gingrich can grab a sizeable chunk of Perry's remaining supporters, he could transform Romney's lead into a tight race.
But Gingrich still has plenty of hurdles to overcome: A potentially damaging ABC News interview with his second wife, Marianne, is scheduled to air on Nightline Thursday night. And news on Thursday morning that Rick Santorum actually won the Iowa caucus-instead of Romney-could boost the former Pennsylvania senator in the socially conservative state (see "Delayed gratification," by Joel Hannahs). Santorum, who also received the endorsement of evangelical leader James Dobson on Thursday, has trailed in recent polls, placing fourth behind Romney, Gingrich, and Ron Paul, but continues the kind of relentless campaign schedule in South Carolina that propelled him to eventual victory in Iowa.
Meanwhile, Paul continues to gain ground: The Texas congressman picked up significant endorsements from a handful of conservative South Carolina legislators over the last week, and his supporters remain determined to mount aggressive grassroots efforts: Paul's fans dominated the pro-life event on Wednesday night, thundering their approval when he appeared via satellite from Washington after voting against the debt-ceiling increase in Congress. His supporters also canvassed the crowd, passing out literature and holding up homemade signs with slogans like "Ron Paul-Ideologically Pure. Tough as Nails."
Perry, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul appeared separately at the forum sponsored by Personhood USA, a Colorado-based, pro-life group. Moderators spent about 20 minutes with each candidate, asking questions about life-related issues. All four GOP hopefuls expressed ardent pro-life beliefs and promised to promote efforts to protect unborn life as president.
But the night was marked by the elephant who wasn't in the room: Mitt Romney. Event organizers reported that they invited all the GOP candidates to attend, but Romney's staff said he had a scheduling conflict. (The former Massachusetts governor missed a similar event in Iowa.) Though Romney may not want to be drawn into discussions of his pro-abortion past, missing the event could prove a gamble: For undecided voters wary of his positions, his absence could deepen concerns or leave questions unanswered.
The remaining candidates used the opportunity to fill the gap, though Gingrich may have overshot the moment by promising a breathtaking turnaround in America: "With aggressive leadership we could have a cultural revival of enormous proportions in a relatively short amount of time and fundamentally reset our elite institutions to reflect American values."
Gingrich-who later said that "the greatest of all sins is hubris"-also pledged to defund Planned Parenthood by early next year.
Santorum didn't promise a rapid cultural revolution, but he did promise a series of steps to promote life and pledged he wouldn't sign any bill that contained funding for Planned Parenthood. Some conservatives had criticized Santorum for voting for omnibus Senate bills that included family planning dollars for Planned Parenthood while he was in office. The former senator told the crowd he wouldn't sign such bills as president, adding that abortion is "the moral issue of our time."
Paul said that he supported efforts to allow states to draft their own abortion laws, though he did add that he would also support a constitutional amendment protecting unborn lives. The candidate known as a champion for personal liberty emphasized, "Liberty can't be protected if we don't have life itself."
That idea may be producing a quiet side effect of Paul's candidacy: exposing pro-abortion supporters to his pro-life views. Paul said he regularly tries to "convert people" to a pro-life position by explaining from a medical and moral perspective that unborn life deserves legal protection. "And this has helped me convert many, many people," he said. "Many people have already told me, 'You made me think of this differently.'"
The congressman also said the moral problems that lead to abortion wouldn't be solved by passing laws. "The loss of morality caused us to get Roe v. Wade," he said. "So I argue that we better think about our family life and our morality because that is what will solve our problems more than passing laws."
That's a message that resonates with Jacob Johnson. The 25-year-old Greenville resident is an evangelical and a Paul supporter who likes the candidate's small-government views. But he also likes his pro-life stance and was glad to hear the other candidates shared those convictions: "I was impressed really with all of them." Johnson added that after hearing their views he might consider voting for one of the other GOP candidates in a general election if Paul doesn't win the nomination.
But he's pulling the lever for Paul on Saturday and said he hopes that others will think about the candidate's message about underlying problems that the government can't fix.
"People want to make a difference by voting and legislating-and that's part of it-but they feel like it gets them off the hook for actually going out and getting involved in people's lives and actually making a positive influence," Johnson said. "But if your idea of making a difference is just getting up on Saturday and going to the polls, then don't even bother."
The four remaining GOP candidates will square off Thursday night in a nationally televised debate from Charleston, S.C.