- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2012

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum won endorsement on the third ballot on Saturday at an invitation-only meeting of evangelicals held at the Brenham, Texas, ranch of Nancy and Paul Pressler, an evangelical leader told The Washington Times on condition of anonymity.

“The vote counters refused to tell the total votes because the message was that they are unifying behind one candidate,” the leader told The Washington Times.

The meeting’s purpose was to see if born-again Christians could find a candidate around whom to coalesce in a desperate effort to stop what has been perceived as the Mitt Romney juggernaut. The Presslers originally backed Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Mr. Santorum surprised fellow Republicans and religious conservatives by taking second place in the Iowa caucuses, only eight votes behind Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whose health-care insurance plan in his state is said to have served as a model for President Obama’s health-care plan. That plan, enacted by Congress, is reviled by most Republicans, many independents and some Democrats as coercive and excessively expensive for taxpayers.

Rick Tyler, former spokesman for GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, said after the vote that there was “no consensus coming out of Texas.”

The evangelical community still holds a divergent opinion on who the nominee should be.

“Rick Santorum won a straw poll that had a questionable methodology. Rick has a very good record on evangelical issues but has no ability to beat Mitt Romney, and less so for Barack Obama,” Mr. Tyler said.

“Endorsing Rick only serves to help Romney, who has a terrible record on the issues evangelicals care about. Newt Gingrich is surging in South Carolina and is within the margin of error in most polls. Rick Santorum is at the bottom of those same polls. Newt Gingrich is the only candidate who can challenge Mitt Romney for the nomination and the only candidate who can beat Barack Obama,” Mr. Tyler said.

Some leading members of the Christian right who attended the meeting later characterized it as disastrous for evangelical unity because it generated bitterness, suspicion and acrimony among the factions the meeting was supposed to unite.

Mr. Santorum won the first and second ballots — the first by nine votes and the second by 59 percent to 41 percent in what pro-Gingrich forces regarded as a meeting set up by Santorum partisans and “manipulated by them.”

About 150 religious conservative leaders participated, and many of them — by some accounts a third — left to catch planes back home after the second ballot because they thought the meeting was over.

They were “shocked” to learn a third ballot was taken in their absence, three well-known leaders on the religious right told The Times.

They claimed the third ballot was taken without them to make it seem something closer to a evangelical-movement consensus behind Mr. Santorum had been achieved.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Campaign for Working Families founder Gary Bauer met the night before the meeting and led the argument for rallying around  Mr. Santorum at the Saturday balloting.

Former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, a Gingrich campaign co-chairman who attended the meeting, found a way afterward to pooh-pooh Santorum partisans’ claims that he had emerged as the consensus candidate among social conservatives.

“Congratulations to Rick Santorum,” Mr. Watts said. “It is a very strong sign for the GOP that Gingrich and Santorum were separated by only nine votes on the first ballot cast today. Both candidates have friends in the evangelical community who are committed to helping nominate a conservative.” But, Mr. Watts added, “It is clear that 100 percent of those attending are not for Gov. Mitt Romney, but  are splintered in whether to support Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum.”

Mr. Watts, for a time the only black conservative in the House, called it “misleading for the Santorum campaign to claim they won the endorsement of 150 evangelical leaders.”

Mr. Perkins’ Family Research Council said in a statement late Saturday night that the “agreed-to threshold for support of the group was two-thirds of those present. That threshold was surpassed on the third ballot when Rick Santorum gained 74.5 percent of the vote and Newt Gingrich received 25.5 percent.”

The FRC statement said that from “the outset, the stated goal of the meeting was to attempt to arrive at a consensus or a clear majority of support for a single conservative candidate.

“That goal was achieved. While a supermajority of those attending the meeting stated support for Rick Santorum as their preference in the Republican primary, it was also made clear that conservative leaders could coalesce around any of the three presidential candidates who had strong representation at the meeting: Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum.”

The FRC said these numbers represented the ballot results:

First Ballot
Ron Paul 1
Mitt Romney 3
Rick Perry 13
Newt Gingrich 48
Rick Santorum 57

Second Ballot (two top vote recipients)
Mr. Gingrich 49
Mr. Santorum 70

Third Ballot
Mr. Gingrich 29
Mr. Santorum 85

The attendees had agreed after the first ballot that only the top two vote getters would be on the second ballot, in an effort to achieve the maximum possible appearance of coalescence around a single candidate to stop Mr. Romney’s winning the GOP presidential nomination.

At the meeting, Doug Wead, presidential historian and adviser to President George H.W. Bush, spoke on behalf of Texas Rep. Ron Paul. But at one point Mr. Wead told his fellow evangelicals that the reason Mr. Paul and Mr. Romney and their backers spent an estimated $3 million on anti-Gingrich ads leading up to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses is that they perceive the former House speaker as the only real threat.

None of the top contenders is an evangelical. Mr. Romney is a Mormon, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum are Catholics, and Mr. Paul is a Baptist.

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