- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 15, 2012

One day after capturing the coveted endorsement of key evangelical leaders, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum urged South Carolina’s conservative GOP base to push other Republican candidates out of the race and set up a one-on-one showdown between him and Mitt Romney, the front-runner heading into Saturday’s primary.

“We need to eventually get this down to a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” said the former senator from Pennsylvania. “We feel like once this field narrows, and we get it down to a two-person race, we have an excellent opportunity to win this race.”

Mr. Santorum and the other candidates trailing Mr. Romney are racing against time in their effort to derail the former Massachusetts governor’s bid for the Republican nomination.

That splintering of the conservative vote among four candidates was something Christian conservatives in the party had hoped to address with Saturday’s invitation-only meeting in Texas of about 150 evangelicals and social conservatives.

Mr. Santorum’s emergence as the group’s choice underscores the misgivings that many on the party’s right continue to harbor about Mr. Romney, the victor of the Iowa caucuses and last week’s New Hampshire primary.

On Sunday, Mr. Perry and Mr. Gingrich shrugged off Saturday’s evangelical straw poll. It took three ballots before Mr. Santorum emerged as the winner, and the former House speaker still received 29 votes to Mr. Santorum’s 85 in the final round of voting.

Some evangelical leaders left the event after the second ballot. Three well-known religious leaders told The Washington Times that they were shocked to learn a third ballot was taken, a move apparently made so it would appear that the evangelical community had coalesced around Mr. Santorum.

Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Mr. Gingrich stressed that he still enjoys a great deal of support from evangelical Christians, and he disputed the notion that Saturday’s results indicate Mr. Santorum has the full backing of the religious right, a key constituency.

“The one consensus was that virtually no one was for Mitt Romney,” Mr. Gingrich said.

But Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the meeting’s goal — picking a standard-bearer to rally conservatives — had been accomplished.

“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,” he said in a statement after Saturday’s meeting.

Mr. Romney received three votes in the first round and none in the following rounds.

The results were nearly as bad for Mr. Perry, who has in the past received strong support from the Christian right. Mr. Perry got 13 votes in the first round and none after that.

The hosts of Saturday’s meeting, evangelical leaders Paul and Nancy Pressler, formerly supported Mr. Perry, a fellow Texan, but poor performances in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have threatened to sink his campaign.

Mr. Perry brushed off the results during an appearance Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

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