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Unstoppable Romney?

Politics | Concerns about the economy dominate in South Carolina, but Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich hope social conservatives will help them catch the primary's frontrunner

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."

Two days after Bauer endorsed former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum for the GOP nomination, he acknowledged that the group of evangelicals scheduled to converge in Texas on Jan. 14 would discuss Republican candidates. But in a pre-meeting interview, Bauer said the leaders still backed a variety of contenders, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: "I think everybody hopes that along the way people will unite behind their candidate."

If candidates like Santorum or former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich hope to overtake current GOP frontrunner Romney in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21, the moment is critical. Winning a coalition of evangelical leaders could offer either candidate a boost in a race that's getting harder to win after Romney's victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.

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By mid-January, polls showed Romney holding a 9-point lead in the South Carolina race. Santorum and Gingrich were tied for second place and scrambling to gain enough conservative votes to catch the frontrunner they both called a moderate.

At a Jan. 11 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."

Richard Land-president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention-thinks evangelical leaders would like to unite. Land-who doesn't endorse candidates-said he had participated in discussions among evangelical leaders who regretted the 2008 primary season: Some waited until late in the contest to support Republican Mike Huckabee over the more moderate Sen. John McCain. After winning in Iowa, Huckabee lost South Carolina and eventually the nomination.

Social conservative leader Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council told the Associated Press in early January that he expected Santorum to gain momentum in the 2012 race. And while Bauer didn't offer a prediction before the Texas meeting, he did say: "I think that as of now, to the extent that there's any movement in one direction or the other, Sen. Santorum is in the best position to get some additional endorsements."

But it's unclear whether evangelicals will coalesce around Santorum or another candidate in time to threaten Romney's lead. Land believes they may not be able to reach a consensus before the South Carolina contest, especially when some have already committed to candidates still in the race. Though plenty of contests remain after South Carolina, political observers view the conservative state's primary as a nomination bellwether.

Meanwhile, 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 a Jan. 11 Gingrich rally at 9:00 a.m. on a weekday morning. 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 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 gay 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.

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