GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich arrives Tuesday at a town hall meeting in South Carolina. Earlier in the week, the former Speakers campaign sent his sisters to teach Sunday school at a Columbia, S.C., church and invited reporters to cover the event.
At the Texas meeting, representatives for each of the five candidates made an appeal to the group Friday night, followed by a three-round voting process that began Saturday morning. Bill Wichterman, a lobbyist at Covington & Burlington and former adviser to President George W. Bush, presented on behalf of Santorum. Jim Garlow, a California-based pastor and an outspoken supporter of California’s gay-marriage ban, spoke on behalf of Gingrich.
When presented with a choice between two candidates in the final round of voting, 85 of the participants voted for Santorum and 29 voted for Gingrich, a victory that Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council, initially described as a “strong consensus.” He walked back that characterization after a group of Gingrich supporters went public with concerns that it was not a consensus at all.
“We think it’s unfortunate that, for whatever reason, that it got labeled an endorsement,” former Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.) said. “Those who went in supporting Newt Gingrich came out supporting him more strongly.”
One Gingrich supporter at the meeting called the process a “hatchet job,” and several attendees described scathing personal attacks, including references to the bad optics of a potential first lady — Callista Gingrich — who had once been the ex-Speaker’s mistress. Others said several Gingrich supporters mistakenly left before the final round of voting.
Perkins did not respond to Roll Call’s request for comment.
“They got trounced. It wasn’t a close vote,” said a senior adviser for the Santorum campaign. “When you get trounced, you can either say, ‘Shoot, we lost fair and square,’ or you can blame the process.”
But when asked to grapple with the prospect of uniting behind Romney should he clinch the nomination in the coming weeks, even the most conservative Christians were optimistic.
“If they hadn’t been able to unite around someone, they’d always wonder what would have happened. ... If it doesn’t work out, it will make it easier to endorse whoever the nominee is,” Land said. “Don’t underestimate Obama’s ability to unite his opponents.”