On Sunday evening, around the time Mitt Romney was celebrating his landslide victory in Puerto Rico’s primary, Rick Santorum was in a Baptist church on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, testifying about the nature and origins of his faith. Santorum drew a chuckle when he told the crowd he found God in Washington, D.C., of all places. “Faith was a part of my life. It wasn’t central to my life,” he told more than 1,000 parishioners crammed into a cavernous sanctuary bedecked with a giant American flag illuminated by twinkling red and blue lights. When Santorum became a Senator, he joined a Bible study group, his family grew, and he immersed himself in a local church. His faith deepened in the process, along with his sense of purpose. “It was a great blessing to me. It changed my life,” he said. “I feel very grateful that God blessed me with those people in my life that led me on that journey.”
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It wasn’t the first time Santorum had told the story that day. As Romney stumped in Illinois, where he won handily on Tuesday night, Santorum barnstormed three of Louisiana’s largest Baptist churches. The political calculation was clear. As he tries to sustain his campaign with a third straight victory in the Deep South, Santorum is making faith the centerpiece of his pitch. At a private briefing with some two dozen pastors at a stately red brick church outside Baton Rouge, Santorum told the pastors that the U.S. has lurched toward a moral precipice, propelled by a a president bent on minimizing the role of religion in private life. He said Romney’s economic message was ill-suited to the larger challenges the country faces, and focused his own on the expanded role faith should play in public life. “We need to focus this election on the big things,” he told the pastors. For Santorum, it doesn’t get bigger than faith and freedom.
This pitch has proved persuasive in states like Louisiana, which is both deeply conservative and heavily Catholic. What’s striking, however, is the traction Santorum has gotten with Evangelicals. Four years ago, social-conservative kingpins split their support among several candidates, despite the presence on the ballot of Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher. As Michael Scherer and I write in a story for the upcoming issue of TIME, Santorum has braided together a powerful coalition of national Evangelical leaders with a committed grassroots army — anti-abortion activists, home-school groups, Tea Partyers, and so on — who are drawn to his faith-laced message. For Santorum, a Catholic, to unify Evangelical leaders is no mean feat given the history between the denominations. Throughout the primary, Santorum has collected an outsize share among the Evangelical communities — a fact some observers attribute as much to his competition as to his charisma. “The deep rooted suspicions of Mormonism trump vestigial suspicions of Catholicism,” says Randall Balmer, a professor of religious history at Barnard College.
Santorum’s favor among this network of pastors — the “grass tops” — has been critical. Their support filters down to the grass roots in communities where churches are the backbone of social interaction. “It’s the Christian social network,” says Mark Herman, an Exxon engineer from Baton Rouge who brought his family, outfitted in Santorum regalia, to a meet-and-greet with the candidate at a Louisiana State baseball game.
But for all the time he’s spent nurturing this grassroots fervor, Santorum hasn’t expended much effort building an official campaign. His only field office in the state is a warren of rented rooms operating from within an auto-insurance shop sandwiched between a Popeyes chicken and a hair salon in a suburb of New Orleans. At 2 p.m. on a Monday, five days before the Bayou State’s March 24 primary, only one staffer was toiling inside: Kyle Ruckert, Santorum’s state director, who moved over temporarily from Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter’s office. Ruckert said the campaign was working on targeting voters as part of a get-out-the-voter operation, but the only traces of recent activity in the office were the detritus of a recent phone-banking operation. About a dozen people turn up after work five nights a week, said Ruckert, who estimated the effort to win Louisiana had only ramped up in the past 10 days or so. He could not, or would not, say how many paid staff the campaign had in the state.
Santorum has a shot at pulling out Louisiana despite his skeletal campaign. The Red, White and Blue Fund, his allied super PAC, has gone up on air with a $250,000 TV buy, and a recent poll showed him with a slim lead over Romney and Gingrich.The Bayou State’s March 24 primary is a critical one for Santorum, and not just because of its 46 delegates. He badly needs to reclaim some momentum in the GOP primary fight. For that, Santorum appears to have put his faith in faith alone.