He wasn’t their first, second or even third choice for president, but as pro-life leaders flocked to Tampa, Fla., this week for Mitt Romney’s official Republican nomination, they insisted they had had a successful election year.
They were never able to coalesce behind a single candidate during the primaries, instead scattering their support among Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who were considered the most socially conservative options in a crowded field.
The topic of abortion appeared to be too politically risky for any Republican to address this year, even though all of the primary candidates said they oppose the procedure — including Mr. Romney, in an apparent reversal from his past. That, pro-life activists said, means they’ve forced the discussion further to the right than it’s ever been before.
“Every candidate that competed in the primaries claimed on this issue to be with us,” said Gary Bauer, who made an unsuccessful presidential bid in 2000 and has founded several conservative organizations. “That is a remarkable change from 15, 20 years ago.”
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said it’s a huge change from when presidential contenders such as televangelist Pat Robertson stood as outliers on the abortion issue. This year, the debate was about whether the candidates’ claims to be pro-life were supported by their records.
“Now almost everybody’s conservative in the race, and we’re just talking about degrees of conservatism,” Mr. Perkins said. “I think we’ve been very successful.”
But that’s not much comfort to the primary candidates who sought the undivided support of the religious right, only to find activists divided over who to back.
“Talk to Gary. Talk to others. I don’t know,” Mr. Santorum said, when asked whether social conservatives failed politically this year. “I was the candidate.”
After Mr. Santorum won the Iowa caucuses in January, social-conservative leaders huddled in Texas to consider whether they should throw their support behind a candidate other than Mr. Romney, viewing with skepticism his stated positions on abortion and gay marriage.
They emerged still divided. And while Mr. Santorum went on to win several more state primaries, including Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado, he never was able gather enough momentum to overcome Mr. Romney and his well-oiled campaign.
But activists defended themselves, saying they were only split because they had too many good options from which to choose — an “embarrassment of riches,” Faith & Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed said.
“How do you go to Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum and say, ‘We really appreciate you going out there and fighting for us every day and being champions for our values, but we’ve decided to go with Rick Perry?’” Mr. Reed said.
“Does anyone criticize the NRA [National Rifle Association] for not coalescing behind a single candidate?” he said. “No, because every candidate is good on guns. So why would you coalesce behind a candidate when everybody’s solid on your issue? You wouldn’t, because you can’t lose.”
And while pro-lifers lack some enthusiasm about Republicans’ presidential pick, they’re pleased with the party’s platform this year, which some have called the most conservative yet.
“I think that social conservatives found their voice at the end here, and I think we are stronger than we’ve been in years,” said Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America.