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Santorum gets key vote

Sun., Jan. 15, 2012

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum meets patrons of Tommy’s Ham House in Greenville, S.C., on Saturday. (Associated Press)
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum meets patrons of Tommy’s Ham House in Greenville, S.C., on Saturday. (Associated Press)

Social conservative leaders endorse him over Romney

AUSTIN, Texas – With less than a week before the critical South Carolina primary, social conservative leaders banded together Saturday to back former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania over Republican front-runner Mitt Romney as their choice to confront Democratic President Barack Obama in the fall.

The consensus emerged from a two-day meeting of about 150 key conservative leaders at a ranch near Brenham, Texas, about 90 miles east of Austin. Santorum won decisively over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the last of three ballots, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and the designated spokesman for the group.

The outcome was another setback for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is seeking to salvage his struggling campaign in South Carolina after finishing fifth in Iowa and bypassing the New Hampshire primary. Perry was eliminated after the first ballot, Perkins said.

Conservative leaders had been struggling to unite behind an alternative to Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, but failed to agree on a consensus in previous meetings. Perkins said he was surprised that the participants were able to put aside their differences and forge a “strong consensus” behind Santorum, a onetime single-digit contender who surged to second place in Iowa with strong support from Christian conservatives.

The decision at the Hidden Hills Ranch of former Texas Judge Paul Pressler could change the dynamics in the Republican presidential race and present new challenges for Romney, whose back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire have made him the man to beat for the GOP nomination.

A victory in the South Carolina primary on Saturday would give Romney his first triumph in the South and – in the view of many analysts – could make him unstoppable.

But with their newly found unity, the conservative leaders now aligned behind Santorum can muster their fundraising power and outreach to hundreds of thousands of social conservatives to build a formidable barrier to Romney’s quest for the nomination.

Many social conservatives perceive Romney as a moderate and question his commitment to priority issues such as opposition to abortion and gay marriages. In South Carolina, social conservatives and evangelicals constitute up to 60 percent of the Republican electorate.

“What I did not think was possible appeared to be possible,” Perkins said in a conference call with reporters after the final balloting. Santorum received 85 of 114 votes on the third and last ballot in what Perkins described as a strong “commitment to see a true conservative elected.”

Perkins dismissed the notion that the action comes too late to slow or stop Romney. “When you look at the delegate count,” Perkins said, “it is far from decided.”

Perkins, at the request of participants, did not identify those who attended, but hosts and invitees included top leaders in Christian conservative politics. Among those known to be involved in organizing or hosting the meeting were James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of the Liberty Institute; Don Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association; and Gary Bauer, president of American Values.

Representatives for most of the candidates, including Romney, addressed the group in an opening round of discussions Friday evening, Perkins said. The balloting took place Saturday morning.


 

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