Evangelical conservatives endorse Rick Santorum, but is it too late to matter?

Published: Saturday, Jan. 14 2012 2:53 p.m. MST

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney points towards the audience as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum looks on before a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, N.H., Jan. 8, 2012.

Charles Krupa, file, Associated Press

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More than 100 influential evangelical conservatives announced Saturday that they want Rick Santorum to be the next president of the United States.

The conservative leaders — including Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins — met at a secluded Texas ranch Friday and Saturday to choose a Republican presidential candidate to collectively throw their weight behind. All six Republican presidential candidates remaining in the race garnered consideration, and five of the six candidates each sent a surrogate to make the case for his conservative bona fides. (Only Jon Huntsman Jr. lacked a surrogate at the meeting.)

"After the first vote, the field was narrowed to Mr. Santorum and Mr. (Newt) Gingrich," the New York Times reports. "In the third ballot, Perkins said, 114 people voted, with Mr. Santorum receiving 85 votes and Mr. Gingrich 29."

Gingrich and Rick Perry — the other two GOP White House hopefuls besides Santorum to aggressively court Christian conservatives — are likely the biggest losers from Saturday's development. However, as Slate's David Weigel reports, that does not mean Gingrich or Perry will be asked to end their campaigns — at least not yet.

"No one was calling for Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich to leave the race, even though the assemblage included supporters of both candidates. … There were, said Perkins, people who switched their allegiance to Santorum anyway, for fear of repeating what is remembered as a disaster: The 2008 nomination of John McCain over a divided field of people who'd actually tried to win over evangelicals."

With only a week left until South Carolina's Jan. 21 presidential primary,

Politico's Jonathan Martin questions the timing of the endorsement. "The … to wait until the week before the South Carolina primary to make a collective endorsement appears more than a little tardy. The move to coalesce behind one social conservative alternative would have been more valuable a month ago — before Romney had already won the first two states and was in the lead in both South Carolina and Florida."

The Grio, a new African-American news site run by NBC News, believes that Saturday's endorsement "probably won't get Santorum to a win in South Carolina, which he needs to blunt Romney's momentum. Here's why: these leaders have limited influence. The endorsements of people like Focus on the Family founder James Dobson or Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who attended the Texas gathering, are unlikely to sway many grassroots Republicans."

EMAIL: jaskar@desnews.com

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