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.
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.
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."
Romney set the stakes high, too: In his first appearance in South Carolina after winning the New Hampshire primary, the former governor told a crowd of about 300 people in Columbia that the presidential race was about preserving the soul of America. That mostly centered on controlling spiraling debt, managing the economy, and protecting national security-issues over which voters consistently express deep concern.
When it comes to social issues, Romney isn't as aggressive: Though he regularly answers debate questions by saying that he's pro-life and against gay marriage, he doesn't include those issues in stump speeches.
Mark DeMoss-an evangelical and an unpaid adviser to the Romney campaign-says the candidate hasn't focused on evangelical outreach during this primary season: "Gov. Romney has an outreach to America." (Curtis Loftis-the South Carolina State Treasurer and chairman of Romney's campaign in the state-says he's met with social conservatives to promote the candidate.)
For Romney volunteer Vicki Robbins, social issues are important, but economic woes dominate. As she distributed Romney stickers outside his campaign event, Robbins says she weighed all the candidates but liked Romney's business record and economic proposals. Most of all, she says she likes Romney for one central reason: "We need to beat Obama, and I believe he's the one who can do it."
That may be Romney's trump card. Polls show many Republican voters placing a high priority on nominating a candidate who can win the general election. And Romney's win in New Hampshire-a far less conservative state than South Carolina-suggests he could appeal to a broader base. The candidate gained voters across categories, including evangelicals: Romney took 31 percent of self-identified evangelicals, while Santorum won 23 percent. (Santorum easily won evangelical voters in Iowa.) Romney also took 33 percent of the independent vote, while second-place finisher Ron Paul took 30 percent.
But despite perceived electability, some undecided voters still have concerns. The formerly pro-abortion Romney emphasizes that he's now pro-life, but he still faces doubts from some voters. At the Gingrich rally earlier in the day, Lou Pantuosco said while he's most concerned about a candidate who could improve the country's manufacturing sector, he's also concerned about social issues like abortion and marriage. When it comes to Romney, the undecided voter feels unsure: "I guess that's what he believes. I just don't think he'd fight for it."
That may be Santorum's trump card. The former Pennsylvania senator boasts a staunchly pro-life voting record and an unambiguous opposition to gay marriage. Though he doesn't lead with those issues, voters often ask him about them. The candidate faced a barrage of questions about gay marriage during his New Hampshire campaign and often endured jeers from crowds when he expressed opposition.
When a caller to a radio show told Santorum that the race didn't need "a Jesus candidate," the outspoken Catholic said he wouldn't mind being called that name: "We always need a Jesus candidate. I don't mean necessarily that we always need a Christian, but we need someone who believes in something more than themselves."
That theme ran through the candidate's speech during a rally just after Romney's event in Columbia. Santorum spoke mostly about the economy but also discussed American rights and where they come from: "They come from a loving God who gave us rights because we are made in His image." He later answered a question about abortion and gay marriage by saying: "All the other candidates have similar positions, but I'm told I'm the extremist candidate. Maybe it's because I'm the only one who talks about it. And maybe it seems like I mean it."
Santorum connects well with voters on emotional issues like pro-life concerns. He regularly tries to explain connections between economic and social issues, and to bring in historical perspective. That led to some of his answers to questions at the Jan. 11 rally running long, with some audience members looking at their watches. For example, Santorum's answer to a question about balanced budgets led to a book recommendation about George Washington and a discussion of the British Empire.
When it comes to being competitive with Romney, Santorum supporter Bobby Scott thinks that his appeal to evangelicals will help: "If his message clicks with people, I think that's going to make the difference." But Santorum's critics charge that he voted for big government spending during his time as a senator, and they question whether his economic plans will bring about needed changes. The candidate counters that if his plans are more modest than the plans of his opponents, they are also more doable.
Whether evangelical leaders will click with one candidate isn't clear. And it isn't clear whether such an endorsement would persuade large numbers of voters. A last minute push among evangelicals in Iowa may have helped Santorum nearly win that state, but since the endorsements came from local leaders, it's difficult to know if support from national leaders would have the same effect.
One aspect is certain: Romney's competitors must find a way to distinguish themselves from each other in order to win, especially if Ron Paul picks up more support after his second-place finish in New Hampshire. A Romney win in South Carolina could pave the way for a Florida primary victory on Jan. 31, but a loss could pave the way for a very different primary season, says Clemson political scientist David Woodard: "Holy cow, we'd have a race on our hands."
-with reporting by Joel Hannahs and Edward Lee Pitts