Group of 150 social conservatives, activists votes to back Rick Santorum

A group of conservative activists decided Saturday to throw its support behind Rick Santorum in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination.

Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council and a spokesman for the group of roughly 150 activists, said that a “strong consensus” emerged for the former Pennsylvania senator after a three-ballot process.

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“I think it was vigorous discussion of who they felt best represented the conservative movement and who they think had the best chance of succeeding,” said Perkins, adding that he was surprised that the group was able to coalesce around one candidate.

The activists gathering in Texas, a week before South Carolina voters go to the polls in their primary, said their get-together was meant to unite behind an alternative to President Obama and not to “bash” Mitt Romney – the front-runner for the nomination who is viewed with skepticism within some conservative and evangelical circles.

But Perkins also said he did not believe the conservative leaders had weighed in too late to blunt Romney’s momentum, even though the former Massachusetts governor became the first non-incumbent Republican to win both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

The race, Perkins said, is “far from decided,” noting that Romney had just a handful of the delegates he needed to capture the nomination.

“This could be exactly the right time,” the social conservative leader said, calling South Carolina “a state that is more reflective of the social conservative movement.”

At the Texas event, Santorum got roughly three-quarters of the 114 votes on the final ballot, where he faced off against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas also received considerable support from the group, Perkins added.

“The group spent a good bit of time praying for unity and for consensus that could communicate the seriousness of the position this country is in,” Perkins said. “We don’t need to just change jerseys. We need to change the way we do business.”

Perkins said that the activists who attended the event had agreed to have an open mind about supporting whoever emerged from the meeting, even if they had entered the weekend backing another candidate.

But the FRC president also said that some activists should not necessarily be expected to switch their support, as Gingrich, Perry and Santorum all continue to battle on in South Carolina.

In fact, Perkins declared that he would not be surprised if some participants left the meeting peeved at the outcome.

“Almost on any given Sunday, somebody’s going to leave church upset,” he said.

The weekend meeting was in part an effort by social conservatives to avoid a repeat of the 2008 election, when evangelicals failed to coalesce behind a single candidate.

“That was the whole genesis behind the meeting,” Perkins said.

That year, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, another candidate that social conservatives were not that fond of, captured the Republican nomination.

Like all the GOP candidates except for former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, Romney sent a surrogate to brief the Texas meeting.

But Perkins also said that Romney’s candidacy merited little discussion, and that it should be no surprise that the former Massachusetts governor was far from the favored candidate for social conservatives.

“If he were, there would’ve been no need for this meeting,” Perkins said.

Still, it remains to be seen what the activists’ decision means for Santorum, a Catholic who has not been shy in discussing his social conservative bona fides on the campaign trail.

Perkins said that he expected the former two-term senator’s campaign to get a jolt of financial and grassroots support out of the meeting. But he also suggested the support would not be that coordinated among the groups in attendance.

“Within 24 hours, you’ll begin to see that take shape,” Perkins said about individual groups’ response. “They will be able to define what they’ll be doing.”

This story was originally posted at 12:50 p.m. and has been updated.


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