With one week before the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, more than 150 conservative evangelical leaders gathered on a Texas ranch in the latest effort to find a political savior.
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum won the support of a group of more than 150 conservative evangelical leaders, who gave him 85 of 114 votes on the third round of balloting. (Photo: IowaPolitics.com)
At the close of the two-day private meeting, the group emerged Saturday to announce its vote to back former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum in the presidential race.
Several Southern Baptist leaders participated in the meeting, which was held on the ranch of Paul Pressler. A key leader in what they called the "conservative resurgence" of the Southern Baptist Convention, Pressler later served as the SBC's first vice president.
Among the Baptists joining Pressler were Richard Land, who leads the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Jim Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
Robert Parham, executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, is skeptical the summit will actually move voters in the Palmetto State and beyond.
"While Paul Pressler was able to set the agenda for the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, I question whether he and his Christian Right friends can set the agenda for the Republican Party," Parham stated. "We will soon see if they are all hat and no cattle, all pious palaver and no political power."
The vote is expected to result in several personal endorsements of Santorum throughout this week.
For instance, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson reportedly advocated for Santorum during the meeting and will publicly endorse Santorum before Saturday's primary in South Carolina.
In 2008, Dobson backed former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee.
However, Dobson did not offer his public endorsement until most states had voted and U.S. Sen. John McCain already had a sizable lead in the campaign.
The aim of the Pressler summit, which Dobson helped organize, was to avoid a repeat of the 2008 race when conservative evangelical voters split their votes.
Although the support of Santorum is occurring much sooner than smaller efforts to support Huckabee four years ago, many political pundits wonder if it is still too late given former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's strong lead in the race and since Romney and former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich remain ahead of Santorum in most South Carolina polls.
However, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council argued that the race remains "far from decided" and that South Carolina "could be exactly the right time" for a change in the race since it is "a state that is more reflective of the social conservative movement."
Perkins, who helped organize the meeting and emerged as its chief spokesperson, added that the failure to unite behind a single candidate in 2008 "was the whole genesis behind the meeting."
Yet Perkins admitted he did not expect the meeting would actually produce consensus since many evangelical leaders had already publicly endorsed various candidates.
"I will have to admit what I did not think was possible appears to be possible," he explained. "After three rounds of balloting this morning, and vigorous and passionate discussion, there emerged a strong consensus around Rick Santorum as the preferred candidate for this group."
Santorum won the support of the group by capturing 85 of 114 votes on the third round of balloting.
With the exception of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, each Republican candidate had individuals speaking on their behalf, but Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul each failed to make it past the first round of voting.
Santorum defeated Gingrich on the second ballot by a margin of 59-to-41 percent.
The group voted one more time in hopes of being able to announce a larger mandate, but many participants did not vote in the last round and Gingrich still captured nearly one-quarter of the vote.
Santorum quickly expressed his excitement about the vote in his favor. Without conservative evangelicals in South Carolina coalescing around him, his campaign has little hope of repeating his strong Iowa finish.
"It's a validator," he said while campaigning in South Carolina. "People who have been out there in the fields laboring for the conservative causes see us as someone who can not only fight for the causes but effectively fight and win."
Not everyone at the meeting, however, agreed with the decision to back Santorum.
Religious-political organizer David Lane argued that Santorum does not have the grassroots organization to actually win. He added that without that campaign organization, the support of evangelical leaders will not matter.
"This country is going to hell, and the evangelical voice is meaningless," Lane lamented.
Also unclear from the meeting is how the endorsement of an unofficial group impacts the claims of nonpartisanship of many participants in the gathering.
Additionally, some of those involved work for nonprofit organizations that cannot endorse candidates due to IRS regulations, which raises questions about what funds could be used to travel to the event.
Land – as an employee of an SBC entity – often claims to be nonpartisan despite his clear partisan record.
By press time, Land's office had not responded to an EthicsDaily.com request for comment about the gathering.
Although some involved with the meeting – like Santorum-backer Gary Bauer – insisted the event was not an anti-Romney event, Perkins clearly painted the summit as such when he explained the results.
"It was already known that when folks arrived here that Romney was not the candidate," Perkins claimed. "If he were, there would have been no reason for this meeting."
Perkins added that while Santorum, Gingrich or Perry would receive strong support from the group as the Republican nominee, he could not say that about the other candidates.
Perry's poor showing at the event represents a dramatic collapse of support for the one-time leader in the campaign.
Perkins explained that even though many in the group met with Perry last summer to help him launch his presidential campaign, many now believed Perry's "stumbles … may be too hard to overcome."
Last summer, EthicsDaily.com broke the news that Perkins, Land and Lane joined a closed-door meeting of nearly 80 conservative pastors and leaders organized by evangelist James Robison.
The June meeting, designed to help find a new Ronald Reagan as the group hopes to defeat Obama included Perry as a speaker.
Perry also attended a similar meeting in August, and Robison's group had previously met in September 2010.
Robison led a similar effort prior to the 1980 presidential election as he sought to defeat then-President Jimmy Carter. That effort culminated in an August 1980 rally in Dallas with the then-Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan as the key speaker.
Perry started strong in the presidential polls – after hosting a prayer rally in a football stadium with the support of Lane, Land and others in Robison's group – but he dropped dramatically in the polls due to poor performances in debates.
Although Perkins insisted the group did not discuss whether or not to ask Perry or Gingrich to drop out of the race, it became apparent that they hope such decisions would be made in order to avoid splitting the vote.
"The group spent a good bit of time praying for unity and for consensus that could communicate the seriousness of the position this country is in," Perkins argued. "We don't need to just change jerseys. We need to change the way we do business."
As Perkins and others at the meeting have made clear, the group may be trying to stop Romney from garnering the nomination but the real target of their politicking is President Barack Obama.
"We're not having an anti-Romney meeting – it's not true," Pressler exclaimed before the gathering. "That's a figment of the imagination of the press. We're having an anti-Obama meeting."
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.