Just hours after a group of evangelical leaders emerged Saturday from a Texas meeting endorsing Rick Santorum for the GOP presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich’s camp was out with a counter-message: Christian conservatives are on his side.
The former Speaker’s campaign sent his two sisters to teach Sunday school at a Columbia, S.C., church and invited reporters to cover the event. A group of six conservative leaders — all of whom attended the Texas confab — embraced a new group, the Gingrich Faith Leaders Coalition, and pledged to blanket the state with its message.
The dueling public relations campaigns playing out in the Palmetto State highlight just how coveted this voting bloc is as candidates prepare for the primaries in South Carolina on Saturday and in Florida on Jan. 31.
“The grass-roots activists for the [Republicans] have in large part been the religious activists,” said Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail mastermind who attended the Texas meeting and officially endorsed Santorum on Tuesday. “For the most part, the conservative movement has not been involved in presidential politics since Reagan. If conservatives were to get behind one of the candidates, it would be huge.”
Self-identified evangelicals make up nearly half of all adults in South Carolina and 25 percent of adults in Florida, according to data collected by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Another 25 percent of Florida voters identify as Catholic, as do Santorum and Gingrich.
Few of those headed to last weekend’s two-day meeting at a ranch outside Houston expected it to result in an endorsement. Much like in 2008, the Christian right had struggled to coalesce around one particular candidate, even as it was united in its distrust of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Attendees told Roll Call that they felt the meeting should have been months ago.
“Every time social conservatives get together, there is remorse expressed that they didn’t get behind [Mike] Huckabee in 2008 when an endorsement might have increased his viability,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, who was at the meeting but is not personally endorsing any candidate. “It would have helped if it had been done before Iowa, but it wasn’t possible. I think most people didn’t think it was possible now.”
The divisions — and the delay — might be a sign that social conservative leaders are losing some of their clout.
“The power of the Christian right may have dissipated some by becoming more diffuse,” said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. “And in that diffusion, Romney has risen.”
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.”