A leading Southern Baptist figure predicted Friday that Christian conservative leaders won’t rally around an alternative to Mitt Romney until after next week’s South Carolina primary, while warning that the former Massachusetts governor is “not Mormon enough” for most socially conservative voters.
Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said during a newsmaker interview on C-SPAN that evangelical leaders hope that the Palmetto State primary Jan. 21 will whittle down the GOP presidential field and make it clear whether they should rally around Romney rivals Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry before Florida’s primary later this month.
Asked why conservative voters have proven so resistant to Mr. Romney, Mr. Land explained that will some will never vote for him because of his Mormon faith, that others are wary of the fact that during some of his previous campaigns, including his Massachusetts Senate run against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Mr. Romney walked away from the teachings of the Mormon Church, notably on abortion. Mr. Romney, he said, is “not Mormon enough.”
“If his stance on life and his stance on marriage had been consistently what the stance of the Mormon church has been, he would have far less doubts among social conservatives,” he said.
Mr. Land said evangelical voter are hoping to have a much clearer choice immediately after the South Carolina vote.
“The best scenario would be for the voters of South Carolina to give a preponderance of votes to one of the socially conservative candidates and that person would then become the one around which the others rally as we go to Florida and beyond —and they become the alternative to Romney,” he said. “This will make the Republican primary stronger, it will make Romney stronger, it will make his opponent stronger.”
Mr. Land said that too many social conservative have too much invested in different candidates to abandon them before the South Carolina primary.
His remarks follow Mr. Romney’s historic back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire and coincide with a two-day meeting that will draw social conservatives leaders from across the nation to a ranch outside Austin, Texas, where the plan is to discuss their community’s role in the race and whether to coalesce around a single candidate.
Mr. Land said the South Carolina primary will likely open the door for evangelical and socially conservative leaders to try to “convince the weaker candidates to make a very tough decision and withdraw.”
Social conservatives have long doubted Mr. Romney’s commitment to pro-life issues and traditional marriage.
Mr. Land stopped short of endorsing a candidate, but he suggested that Mr. Perry suggested both Mr. Perry and Mr. Gingrich face a tough road to the nomination.
“If [Mr. Perry] had gotten laryngitis, he would still be the frontrunner,” Mr. Land said, a reference to the Texan’s poorly reviewed debate performances, while Mr. Gingrich has “got a lot of baggage, some would call it freight.”
He also suggested that Rick Santorum, a Roman Catholic, is the candidate who best embodies the wishes of so-called “values voters.”
“He’s squeaky-clean morally,” he said of Mr. Santorum. “He has a residue of trust from social conservatives of all stripes from across the country.”
The results of the opening contests in the GOP presidential race have offered some dueling story lines. Voter surveys showed that Mr. Santorum enjoyed a big edge with born-again and evangelical Christians, who made up 57 percent of caucus goers, as well as people who identify themselves as “very conservative” — about 35 percent of the GOP electorate — in the Iowa caucuses.
It was an entirely different story this week in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.
Mr. Romney won over a smaller poll of born-again Christians and evangelicals and a smaller pool of self-identified “very conservative” voters, according to exit polls.
Perhaps the biggest test of religious conservatives looms in South Carolina, where as much as 60 percent of the electorate identifies themselves as evangelical Christians.
Mr. Romney, in an exclusive interview Saturday with The Washington Times, said that he doesn’t see the need to take any special steps to unite conservatives behind his presidential bid, saying over the weekend he already holds “conservative Republican principles” and that he takes his guidance from a famous cartoon sailor.
“I’m not going to veer to the left or veer to the right or jump to the middle. As Popeye used to say, ‘I am what I am, and that’s all what I am,’ ” he told The Washington Times.
“I do believe that my principles are conservative Republican principles, conservative American principles, and I think by continuing to refer to the blueprint of America, the Constitution of America, and the course laid out by the Founders that conservative Republicans as well as independents and Democrats will come to my support.”