MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – With the first GOP contest for president in the South down to its final days, three rivals to frontrunner Mitt Romney on Sunday scrambled to persuade social conservatives to unite behind a single opponent and prevent the former Massachusetts governor from running away with the nomination.
Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry just couldn’t agree on who that lone champion should be.
“The question will be whether the people of South Carolina vote their conscience, or will they let people who don’t speak our language tell us who has the best chance of winning,” Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, said at a prayer breakfast here, one day after a group of 150 evangelical leaders in Texas called on conservative Christian voters to rally around his campaign.
Though he did poorly in last week’s New Hampshire primary, Santorum came from the back of a large pack of GOP contenders and missed winning the Iowa caucuses earlier this month by a mere eight votes.
Ralph Reed, leader of the Faith and Freedom Coalition that organized the breakfast, introduced Santorum as “the most effective, conservative, pro-family legislator of this generation,” but said afterwards that he was not endorsing Santorum.
Perry, the Texas governor, appeared at the same breakfast – a prelude to a televised debate tonight – and made a plea intended to cut through worry over his lackluster performances in Iowa and New Hampshire. “Who are you going to trust that has the steady step, that has the balance? I hope each of you will peer into your hearts. Find that individual with the record, the values that represent your heart,” Perry said.
Perry had already left the assembly when conservative author Eric Metaxas, the main speaker at the affair and a Santorum supporter, declared it “likely that some of these wonderful men who are running will hear from God and get out of the race before Saturday for the good of this nation. But that’s in God’s hands and that’s up to those men.”
The scramble for conservative Christian voters in South Carolina began Saturday when dozens of evangelist leaders gathered near Houston in an attempt to reach a consensus on a single opponent to Romney, a Mormon whose past positions on some issues – abortion and health care among them – have made some Republicans wary.
Among those putting their support behind Santorum at the Texas meeting was Tim Echols, the incoming chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission. Gingrich finished second in the balloting, Echols confirmed.
“There were a lot of people comfortable with Newt Gingrich, and I was going back-and-forth for him. Santorum has the whole package. He’s got the orthodox positions, and he’s got the creditability with his wife and family,” Echols said. He intends to campaign for Santorum in South Carolina later this week.
Also at the Houston meeting were the Rev. Richard Lee, pastor of the influential First Redeemer Church of Cumming, Ga., a 2008 supporter of Mike Huckabee, and Mark DeMoss, a Buckhead publicist with ties to the ministries of Billy and Franklin Graham. In the current campaign, as in 2008, DeMoss has acted as a Romney ambassador to evangelical groups in the South and elsewhere.
South Carolina has a 30-year reputation for picking the eventual presidential nominee. Some polls here have shown Romney – winner of the two previous contests in Iowa and New Hampshire — with a strong lead.
Though it might shake up a smooth-running Romney campaign, a late Santorum surge could doom other candidates, including himself, Gingrich conceded on NBC’s “Meet the Press” – after challenging Romney to release his income tax records. Gingrich said he and his wife Callista would do so Thursday.
“I hope every conservative will reach the conclusion that to vote for anybody but Gingrich is, in fact, to help Romney win the nomination and to help him win the primary in South Carolina,” the former U.S. House speaker said. “Winning Our Future,” a political action committee acting in support of Gingrich’s candidacy, is spending $3.4 million on TV and radio ads that blister Romney’s record as a venture capitalist, and the former Massachusetts governor’s past position in support of abortion.
A Romney victory in South Carolina could ease concerns that his Mormon faith would weaken enthusiasm for him among Southern voters in a general election contest. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, has condemned Mormonism as a “cult.”
But Romney had numerous supporters at the Faith and Freedom Coalition prayer breakfast, including Cindy Costa, a member of the Republican National Committee from Charleston County. She pointed to the ground broken by Romney’s previous bid for president in 2008.
“I think people are much more acceptable of it this time around,” Costa said. “If you know Mormon people, they’re just the most precious people in the world. You want one to live on either side of you, ‘cause you know they’re going to take care of you. Why somebody would be opposed to a president with those character qualities, I just can’t understand.”
Others aren’t so sure. The Rev. Derrick Jones is pastor of a Church of God congregation in Seneca, S.C., and gave the invocation at the prayer breakfast. He is undecided in the presidential contest, but thinks the endorsement of Santorum by evangelical leaders in Texas will have some effect.
He agrees Romney’s Mormon faith isn’t drawing as much attention here as it did four years ago. “But at the same time, it’s something to look at. When it comes to faith – do these things line up with what we believe in?” Jones asked.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider