WASHINGTON — So far, cultural conservatives aren't rallying behind any one Republican presidential candidate. And if they split among contenders like Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum, it could benefit the White House hopeful who troubles rather than excites them — Mitt Romney.
That scenario, playing out on the campaign trail, also is vividly on display in Washington this weekend at a gathering of conservatives who care deeply about abortion, gay marriage and other social issues.
Drawing distinctions from Romney, Texas Gov. Perry told the crowd on Friday, "For some candidates, pro-life is an election-year slogan to follow the prevailing political winds."
Likewise, former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum declared, "You know that I have never put social issues and values voters on the back burner. I have been out there fighting and leading the charge."
But Santorum's pitch underscored the problem for Perry, Romney's chief challenger on the right. The Texan is not the only GOP candidate who can make a plausible case to evangelical Christian conservatives.
Other candidates — Minnesota Rep. Bachmann, Santorum, former pizza CEO Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich among them — could peel support away in early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina, where conservative feeling is strong. And that could allow Romney to do better in those primary contests, even if he can't muster a majority of Republican support.
Perry is hardly immune from criticism from his fellow conservative candidates.
Santorum has already assailed him for making comments that suggest that the principle of states' rights makes it acceptable for different states to allow gay marriage.
Santorum and Bachmann, have also criticized Perry's decision to sign an order requiring sixth-grade girls to receive vaccinations for a common sexually transmitted disease.
For the conservative voters at the conference, Romney has a problematic history. He supported abortion rights earlier in his political career and has struggled to explain why he now opposes abortion. He once vowed to be a strong advocate for gays and lesbians — stronger than Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., whom he was then running against. Now, he's signed a pledge from the National Organization for Marriage to work to pass a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. Romney is also a Mormon, a faith that has sparked suspicion among some evangelical conservatives.
"Personally, I know Romney isn't one of my choices. We saw him four years ago and decided against him," said Dan Goddu, a software engineer from Nashua, N.H., who attended the Values Voters Summit.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, will make his pitch at the conference on Saturday.
On Friday, the crowd understood Perry's allusions to Romney's shifted position on abortion, along with his insistence on his own steadfastness.
. "To me, it's about the absolute principle that every human being is entitled to life. All human life — all human life — is made in the image of our creator," the Texas governor said.
Perry starts with an advantage over Romney with cultural conservatives. An August Associated Press-GfK poll showed 34 percent of social conservatives really like Perry, while just 20 percent feel that way about Romney.
Perry has often discussed his born-again evangelical Christianity in public. This summer, he hosted more than 20,000 people for a prayer rally in a Houston football stadium. And he has already begun to focus on outreach to religious leaders who can help bring in evangelical Christian voters, a key part of the Republican base in any primary election.
One of those leaders — Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas — introduced Perry at the summit and pointed to differences between the governor and his Republican rivals.
"Do we want a candidate who is a conservative out of convenience or who is a conservative of conviction? Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born again follower of Jesus Christ?" Jeffress asked.
But Perry has competition for religious conservatives.
Santorum's political reputation is almost entirely based on his social conservative advocacy. He helped lead a Senate effort to ban partial-birth abortion and has aggressively opposed gay marriage. He's at least as blunt as Perry in going after Romney.
"Mitt Romney's past and his seemingly lack of strong convictions with respect to the life issue are a concern. We've seen this: When people don't have a good strong track record on these issues, when they're put into a position of authority they tend to shy away from it," Santorum told reporters ahead of his speech here.
But Santorum also attacked Cain's socially conservative record, complaining that Cain hasn't signed anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage pledges like many others in the field.
Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon said the candidate stands for "principles, not pledges" and is "strongly pro-life, pro-marriage and pro-family."
With Romney's Republican foes on the right fighting for the same conservative activists — and sometimes going after each other — the former Massachusetts governor stands to benefit, even as his backers acknowledge he's not this group's favorite candidate.Comment on this story
"There is a recognition that not every one of these activists is ready to support Gov. Romney right now," said Kevin Madden, Romney's spokesman in 2008 who now serves as an outside adviser to the campaign. "The activists that support him and those that don't will both hold him accountable. What's most important is that Romney not only understands that but he also embraces it."
The five candidates with the best hopes of winning conservatives' support were addressing the Values Voters conference on Friday. Romney and libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who also hasn't drawn strong support from social conservatives in the past, will speak Saturday. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman isn't attending.