COLUMBIA, S.C. — With this state's Republican presidential primary a week away, former Sen. Rick Santorum on Saturday received the endorsement of 150 influential Christian conservative leaders who are hoping to prevent former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney from becoming the GOP nominee.
The group, suspicious that Romney's commitment to social conservative causes such as ending legalized abortion is weak, met at a ranch outside of Houston, Texas, in hopes of rallying around one candidate rather than split their votes among three — Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
The endorsement came as the Republican presidential field converged on scenic Charleston, S.C., for a televised town hall meeting for undecided voters hosted by Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a telephone news conference after the meeting that the conservatives had begun their deliberations with "not a lot of hope that we could reach consensus around one candidate."
But in the end "there emerged a strong consensus around Rick Santorum," Perkins said, after three rounds of balloting.
Santorum, a staunch anti-abortion social conservative, was considered a long-shot candidate before surprising many by losing to Romney in Iowa caucuses Jan. 3 by only eight votes.
Support fluctuated between Santorum and Gingrich, Perkins said, before more than two-thirds voted for the former Pennsylvania senator. In the end, Santorum received 85 votes out of 114 — a smaller total because Perkins said some participants had left to catch flights.
The group's endorsement includes financial support, Perkins said, and could give Santorum a much-needed boost in South Carolina, a state where 60 percent of likely Republican voters are self-described Christian evangelicals.
Santorum has been struggling since Iowa. Shortly after the caucuses, polls showed Santorum and Gingrich statistically tied for second behind Romney. But two of three polls released Friday had Santorum in fourth place. The third survey had him tied with Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
Gingrich supporters were stung by the result and denied that the conservative Christians had reached a consensus.
“Endorsing Rick only serves to help Romney who has a terrible record on the issues evangelicals care about,” Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich spokesman and senior adviser to Winning Our Future PAC, a pro-Gingrich group, said in an email to McClatchy. "Rick has a very good record on evangelical issues but he has no ability to beat Mitt Romney and less so for Barack Obama.”
In an interview, Tyler suggested that the outcome "was orchestrated for Rick” and added that at least nine evangelical and conservative leaders who back Gingrich weren’t at the meeting.
A final week surge by Santorum could be possible now that help is on the way, according to Perkins.
"You will see these organizations engaging openly on his behalf — especially in the state of South Carolina," Perkins said. "We believe that with strong consensus coming behind him that can aid in the fundraising that he will need to be successful in the primary."
The first order of business for the group is to rally donors to Santorum's cause. Republican presidential candidates have spent $11.3 million in television ads in the Palmetto State. Santorum and his super PAC have combined to spend only $1.5 million — well behind Romney, Perry, Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who've targeted Santorum in attack ads.
A Gingrich-aligned super PAC is scheduled to release two new ads Sunday in South Carolina. One labels Romney a "RINO" — a Republican in Name Only — who will be unable to defeat President Barack Obama, and the other accuses Romney of overstating the number of jobs he created when he headed Bain Capital, a private equity firm.
Gingrich and Perry have used Bain Capital to portray Romney as a cold-hearted venture capitalist who put profits ahead of laying off workers.
Perkins noted that every campaign except former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's sent representatives to the group meeting in Texas. Perkins also made it clear that endorsing Romney was not an option for the group.
"If he were, there would have been no reason for this meeting," he said, but added: "This was not a 'Bash Mitt Romney' weekend. Had it been, we would not have invited someone from his campaign to come speak."
In an effort to appeal to South Carolina's social conservatives, Romney's campaign released a Web video Saturday titled "Shares Our Values," which focuses on his opposition to abortion as Massachusetts governor.
(Beam reports for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.)
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