Social conservatives start to coalesce around Santorum

Conservative Christian leaders are beginning to unite behind Rick Santorum to try to avoid a repeat of 2008, when their movement fractured between candidates and denied former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee the Republican presidential nomination.

Many of the movement’s leaders including former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who will officially endorse Santorum Sunday, are meeting in Texas at the end of next week to hash out whether they can get behind one candidate.

“I want to do whatever I can to convince my colleagues that Sen. Santorum is the right man,” Bauer told The Hill late Saturday afternoon.

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But Rick Perry’s decision to stay in the race has complicated things for some in the group, and the timing of the meeting, coming after New Hampshire and less than a week before South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary, means even if they do agree to back Santorum the power of a mass endorsement might be diminished.

“I don’t think there’s any sense of urgency or panic or anything like that” to get behind one candidate, Bauer told The Hill Friday, before his endorsement became public.  “This is a long audition process … it’s possible for the field to remain relatively large for a few more states.”

Phyllis Schlafly, the founder of the Eagle Forum who was invited to the meeting, said she hadn’t made up her mind between Santorum and Perry and was unlikely to endorse a candidate any time soon.


“It’s up in the air,” she said. “I’m still looking around, I may be one of those people who are going to decide when I walk into the ballot box. I’m not going to announce in the next week who I’m backing.”

Bob Vander Plaats, an Iowa conservative leader whose mid-December endorsement of Santorum helped spark his surge in the state, said that the leaders would be “absolutely insane” to wait until after South Carolina to endorse, which he said a few of them had told him was their plan.

“I applaud Gary Bauer for showing leadership. Now I think what needs to happen is instead of having meetings, leaders need to follow Gary’s lead and my lead in Iowa and show leadership,” he said. “It’s painfully clear that Rick Perry needs to drop out … this meeting’s a waste of time. What they need to do is what Gary Bauer’s doing, they need to cancel their plans to get to Texas and rearrange their plans to get to South Carolina, Florida, wherever they can help Santorum. That’s what leaders do. Gary’s proven that. Now, hopefully, other leaders will say ‘I don’t want to be sitting on the sidelines.’” 

Bauer said on Saturday that while most prefer other candidates to Mitt Romney, “The meeting was misrepresented as a ‘stop Romney’ meeting and the only person I'm interested in stopping in President Obama.”

“I think there's a lot of flux at the grassroots and also among conservative leaders,” he continued. “Nobody from the front-runner to some of these challengers, nobody's closed the deal yet. This year's going to frustrate everyone for a while more.”

Many of those attending the meeting have in the past stayed neutral in presidential primaries. But some are reconsidering that stance. “I have not made an endorsement in this race but clearly I like Rick Santorum, he’s a friend,” Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, said on Friday. 

“Historically we haven’t endorsed presidential candidates but I can clearly say that I like Rick, he’s a friend and I’m talking to him on a regular basis.”

Perkins said he’d been invited to the Texas meeting, but that a scheduling conflict would prevent him from attending. He, Bauer and Vander Plaats all said no one had forgotten about what happened in 2008.

Huckabee went into the South Carolina contest with high expectations and little money after winning the Iowa caucuses, much like Santorum. Both had strong appeal to evangelicals and other social conservatives, who make up large portions of GOP primary voters. But Fred Thompson, a southerner who also held some appeal with the group, refused to drop out after a poor Iowa showing and took 16 percent of the vote in South Carolina. That was enough to give McCain a 33 percent to 30 percent win over Huckabee. Huckabee never recovered, had trouble raising money and won only a few states after that.

Vander Plaats urged his fellow social conservatives to get behind Santorum and help push other candidates out of the race — and do it quickly. “If Romney wins South Carolina it’s not game on, it’s game over,” he said on Friday. 

A day later, he expressed the other side of the coin. “If that coalescing happens in South Carolina, you’ll see Santorum run away with it," he said.


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