After Two Days of Debate, Evangelical Leaders Unite Behind Santorum

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Jason Reed / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum speaks to volunteers with his wife Karen at his campaign's Charleston headquarters in South Carolina January 14, 2012.

A group of 125 evangelical leaders met in Texas this weekend and after eight hours of conversation and a final ballot taken on 3 x 5 cards named Rick Santorum as their preferred GOP candidate. “I will have to admit that what I did not think was possible appears to be possible,” event sponsor and Family Research President Tony Perkins announced Saturday morning.

The confab, which took place at former Texas Appeals Court Judge Paul Pressler’s ranch 90 minutes outside of Houston, gathered the leading lights of the Christian right in a last-ditch effort to unite behind a Republican they’d like to see challenge Barack Obama for the White House. Others attending included former Family Research Council president Gary Bauer, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, and former American Family Association chairman Don Wildmon. Failure to unite behind Mike Huckabee in 2008 meant that this once-powerful bloc of Christian conservatives lost much of its clout, and ultimately an election. Now that the GOP primary dash is already underway — and many think nearing its final chapter — there was a sense of urgency to avoid this fate a second time.

After the announcement, Santorum told reporters that the vote was “a validation that people who have been out there in the fields laboring for the conservative cause, see us as someone who can not only stand and fight for the causes but effectively fight and win.”

The Texas decision was hardly unanimous, participants said,  and came after five hours of debate Friday night and three more Saturday morning. With the exception of the camp backing Jon Huntsman, a representative from each candidate’s operation or faction spoke. The discussion turned  largely on social issues, but taxes and health care  also came up, according to several participants.  Voting took three rounds; unanimity was seen by those attending as unlikely from the start. “We didn’t keep everyone voting until everyone agreed — we’d probably be there until November,” says Bauer, who endorsed Santorum at a South Carolina campaign event last Sunday. Santorum won 85 of the 114 final votes cast, Politico reported.

In the end, the bulk of the conversation turned on just two options: Santorum, a Pennsylvania Catholic with seven children, and Gingrich, a Catholic convert and an outspoken Republican who has two daughters and who has been married three times. Gingrich and Santorum remain close in recent South Carolina polls, but are running behind front-runner Mitt Romney.

Two participants reported that some of the debate — how much is unclear — about whether to endorse Santorum or Gingrich turned on the matter of their  wives. According to two participants, James Dobson praised Karen Santorum for her decision to give up her career to raise a family while briefly expressing some reservations about Callista Gingrich. Dobson asked the group to consider, according to both sources, whether Ms. Gingrich would make a suitable first lady. Both Dobson, through a spokesman, and Bauer, declined to comment on this report.

Rick Perry, who has touted his evangelical faith in his campaign appearances, lost favor with the group since his decline in the polls over the past few months. When the group met last August at another Texas ranch, several in attendance said that they thought Perry would be the consensus pick of the evangelical leaders.But in the first round of voting this time, Perry fell far behind Santorum and Gingrich in the working count and failed to move on to the next round.

While Mitt Romney has won in both Iowa and New Hampshire, he did not appear to generate much excitement among those in attendance, participants said. Bauer reported that the meeting was not an anti-Romney gathering. Romney is a member of the Mormon church, which some believe may have limited his appeal among some Christian conservatives.

It remains far from clear whether those attending the Texas meetings will have any influence with Republican primary voters.  “The outcome of the vote was somewhat dictated by who was invited,” says Doug Wead, who was invited to speak on behalf of Ron Paul and who has been advising Republican candidates on matters of faith for more than 25 years. “I long for one of these meetings that is truly representative of evangelicals. The reason we are not effective is that we are not representative — evangelicals resent being manipulated by this kind of thing.”

But Bauer believes that the vote in Texas may yet have an impact on the coming primaries.  “After we reached the conclusion, the sense was that people could do whatever they want. We didn’t try to outline all of that,” he says. “I hope it provides guidance to voters in SC and FL who listen to and respect the people in the room this weekend.”

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