Every Monday morning for the last five weeks, David French has followed his usual routine, with one exception: He fasts from eating to focus on praying for the presidential election.
The evangelical Christian-who's also an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice-says his weekly fast isn't connected directly to his other focus: trying to convince evangelicals to vote for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "It isn't about praying for Romney to win," said French, organizer of Evangelicals for Mitt, a pro-Romney website that invites others to join the fast. "It's about praying for all the candidates and the future of the country."
French isn't the only one praying. Prayer groups for other GOP candidates have sprouted up around the internet, including groups devoted to praying for specific candidates to prevail. "Intercessors for Newt" encourages supporters to pray one hour a week for Newt Gingrich.
Elsewhere, "We Pick Rick" encourages prayer for Rick Santorum. Posted prayers piled up ahead of the slate of GOP primaries on March 6 dubbed Super Tuesday. A Feb. 29 prayer posted by supporter Jeremy Lippert said: "Please give us the leader that is best for our country. Please give us Rick Santorum-be it your will. In Jesus Name, Amen."
Less than a week later, it still wasn't clear which leader would prevail. Though Romney carried six of the 10 states on Super Tuesday, his most important win rang hollow: The former Massachusetts governor won the crucial swing state of Ohio by a razor-thin margin, edging Santorum by 1 percentage point, despite outspending his opponent 4-to-1 in the state.
And though Romney opened a substantial lead in the number of delegates he's secured ahead of the Republican National Convention slated for August, he still faced the possibility of a long slog: By the end of Super Tuesday, Romney had grabbed at least 419 delegates. (Second place Santorum had at least 178.)
In the tumultuous battle for the GOP nomination, dramatic lines mark the field: The top candidate battles, the underdogs plot strategy, and the incumbent president quietly mounts a reelection campaign that promises a greater war that's just months away.
If this year's GOP contest seems prolonged, it's by design. During a 2010 meeting in Kansas City, Mo., members of the Republican National Committee voted to change the party's rules for awarding delegates: The new rules require all states holding presidential primaries or caucuses in March to award delegates proportionally, instead of on a winner-take-all basis. Candidates win delegates based on the districts they win in a particular state. For example, though Romney won the popular vote in Ohio, he snagged only 35 of the state's delegates. Santorum won 21.
Some Republicans have criticized the new rules, saying they prolong the nominating contest and bruise the party by keeping GOP opponents locked in heated battles for votes. But proponents of the new system say the longer process gives voters in more states an opportunity to cast meaningful primary votes by lessening the chance that a handful of states choose the nominee in just a few weeks.
The idea isn't unprecedented. Though the Democratic Party follows its own set of rules, the party's nominating contest was famously prolonged in 2008: Obama and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton battled for the party's nomination until June. Some experts say the longer contest built enthusiasm among Democrats and increased voter turnout for Obama in the general election.
Even if that's true, there's a crucial difference between 2008 and 2012: An incumbent president wasn't running during the last election. Candidates in both parties had more time to raise funds and prepare for a general election. The dynamic today: Obama has been preparing for reelection for four years.
That reality shows up starkly in the president's massive fundraising totals. Obama's campaign reported that through Jan. 31, 2012, it had raised $140.2 million. By March 1, the president had attended 100 fundraisers since announcing his bid for reelection last April.
Romney-the top fundraiser in the GOP-had raised $63.4 million. Texas congressman Ron Paul-who hadn't won the popular vote in any primaries by Super Tuesday-raised $31 million in the same time period.
Perhaps most interesting: The candidate posing the greatest threat to Romney's frontrunner status raised the least amount of money. Santorum reported raising $6.7 million by the end of January. (After a string of primary wins in February, the Santorum campaign reported a surge in fundraising, saying it took in nearly $9 million in February alone.)
But money isn't the president's only advantage. While Republican candidates have spent months appearing in televised debates and focusing on winning primaries, the Obama campaign has been re-engaging a huge grassroots network of volunteers and supporters already in its system, and out-hiring Republican campaigns in states key to winning the general election.
Consider the swing states: In Ohio, the Obama campaign has opened 10 offices and hired a dozen paid staffers. In New Hampshire, Obama has at least seven offices and 20 paid staff members. (Romney, the winner of the state's GOP primary, had one office open in January.)
In Virginia-where Obama in 2008 was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in 44 years-grassroots efforts are in full swing: The Saturday before Super Tuesday, the campaign listed 32 events across the state, including phone banks and door-to-door voter registration. The Virginia campaign includes a state director, five regional directors, a digital director, and a youth outreach staffer.
But despite the impressive campaign machine, there's a wildcard in this year's presidential contest: Super PACs. The political action committees operate independently of campaigns, but can direct funds towards advertising for candidates. A 2010 Supreme Court ruling allows the groups to raise funds without limits.
So far, PACs backing GOP candidates are outpacing by huge margins a PAC that favors Obama. Priorities USA raised $59,000 in January to bolster Obama's campaign. Meanwhile, Restore Our Future-a pro-Romney PAC-raised $6.6 million during the same month. The pro-Gingrich group Winning Our Future raised nearly $11 million in January, with nearly $10 million coming from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. The Santorum-supporting Red, White, and Blue raised $2.1 million.
In other cases, Super PACs aren't backing a single candidate, but are promoting conservative ideas that could help Republican candidates win in the fall. In Virginia, the economically conservative Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is more active than the state's Republican Party in hosting outreach events and Tea Party seminars, and in hiring staffers.
AFP state director Audrey Jackson says the key question in Virginia and other states is whether Democrats can rekindle the enthusiasm of 2008. She's betting no. "Barack Obama had a moment," she said. "He promised all these things-jobs would return. People aren't back to work."
Enthusiasm isn't just a Democratic concern. It may be the single biggest issue facing Romney's campaign. The candidate has raised and spent millions more than his nearest competitor, Rick Santorum, but continues winning many key contests by tight margins, and losing others altogether. Though Santorum would face a steep climb to match Romney's delegate count and snag the nomination, the candidate keeps delivering surprising victories with far fewer resources.
Fundraising isn't the only challenge Santorum has faced: Election officials in the Iowa caucuses declared Romney the winner of the first primary of the year. Two weeks later, they announced they were wrong: Santorum had won the close race. But the momentum-rich moment was gone. In Michigan, Santorum and Romney won an equal number of the state's 14 congressional districts, splitting the delegate count in half, but state officials awarded two more delegates to Romney. Santorum is contesting those results.
Despite the challenges, Santorum summed up his candidacy in a speech to Ohio supporters on the night of Super Tuesday: "We keep coming back."
Exit polls in tight races may offer glimpses into Santorum's ability to hang on: In Ohio, more than 50 percent of voters said Romney was the candidate most likely to beat Obama in November. But Romney's support among voters who considered themselves "very conservative" fell to 30 percent. (Santorum garnered 48 percent of those votes.) Santorum also continued his success with evangelical voters: The group chose him by 17 points in Ohio.
Voters in states that Santorum won underscored the importance of the candidate's connection with religious voters. At a campaign event at Temple Baptist Church in Powell, Tenn., one week before Super Tuesday, voters lined up to meet Santorum after a nearly 60-minute speech. Dawn Lockett, 55, a member of the evangelical congregation, said she's supported Santorum from the beginning: "He's one of my heroes."
The candidate's pro-life record is important to Lockett, but so is his emphasis in speeches on encouraging churches and communities to help people instead of increasing government assistance. Lockett says her husband lost his job two years ago, and though her family qualifies for food stamps, they haven't applied. She says her congregation is committed to helping struggling members, and she believes that's the best kind of help: "The government should not decide what's best for me."
But despite the warm welcome, the event at Temple Baptist highlighted a challenge for Santorum: figuring out how to balance discussions of God, morality, and social issues with a convincing economic platform that reaches a broader base of voters.
He's hit rough spots: The Catholic candidate's discussion of contraception (he called it wrong in an October media interview), and his comment that John F. Kennedy's speech on religion and government made him want to "throw up," have kept the focus on Santorum's religious beliefs.
Tim Echols, a Southern Baptist minister and chairman of the Georgia public service commission, campaigned for Santorum in his home state, but admitted: "We may have gone to the well one too many times with social issues." Echols said Santorum often discussed social issues because reporters asked him more than other candidates about them, but he acknowledged: "We may have worn people out with them."
Richard Land of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, says tone has been the problem. "It isn't that he's talked too much about these issues, but it's the way he's talked about it," he said. "He's giving the media a stick to hit him with."
At the Tennessee event-where supporters toted Bibles and a choir sang Christian songs-Santorum used biblical language to discuss people created in the image of God, and man taking dominion over the earth. But outside, his campaign literature outlined economic and national security concerns, without mentioning social issues.
Santorum supporter and former presidential candidate Gary Bauer said social issues shouldn't be the No. 1 concern in the campaign since most voters are worried about the economy, but he also disagrees with calls from Republicans like Mitch Daniels to call a truce on issues like abortion and gay marriage: "We don't get to call a truce."
Romney hasn't called a truce on social issues, but he hasn't emphasized them. The candidate running on a pro-life and pro-marriage platform discusses the issues when asked, but sometimes avoids the topic. Instead, he's emphasized his business expertise, and a streamlined economic message that mixes tax reform with cutting government spending.
That platform-and a desire to defeat Obama-may be enough to convince most conservatives, including evangelicals, to vote for Romney if he becomes the nominee. Many voters at Santorum's Tennessee event said they don't prefer Romney, but would support whoever wins the nomination. Bauer said he would "work my heart out" for the eventual GOP nominee. But whether that same enthusiasm would spread to other activists remains a key question (see sidebar).
French-of Evangelicals for Mitt-has supported Romney since 2006, and says he believes the candidate has the most conservative platform in the race. He's also convinced that Romney would advocate for social issues if he wins the nomination. (He's even co-authored a book with his wife, Nancy, called Why Evangelicals Should Support Mitt Romney and Feel Good About It.)
In the meantime, French says he and his family will continue fasting on Mondays and praying for the nation's future. He says the spiritual discipline helps cut the intensity of a roller-coaster campaign that has grown ever longer, and that it reminds him of the one truth that gives him peace: "God is in control."
-with reporting by Emily Belz in Virginia