Evan Vucci, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — They know they're not crazy about Mitt Romney. But if the cultural conservatives gathered at a Values Voters Summit this weekend split among Rick Perry and other contenders they do like, it could wind up benefiting the front-running White House hopeful who troubles rather than excites them.
That scenario, playing out on the campaign trail, is on display at the 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. Rick 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."
Later, the crowd reacted more strongly to former pizza company CEO Herman Cain's speech than to any of the other candidates. Attendees stood up repeatedly to cheer.
"You can pursue liberty all you want to as long as you don't tread on somebody else's life, and that includes the life of the unborn," he said. Cain also said he was now being criticized because national polls have showed him joining the top tier of candidates.
His reception, Santorum's pitch and the other conservative candidates' appearances 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 — Santorum, Cain, Minnesota Rep. Bachmann 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.
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