Santorum wins backing of social conservatives
BRENNAN, Texas (BP) -- Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has won the backing of a major gathering of 120-plus social conservative leaders, although it remains to be seen if he can translate the endorsement into support at the ballot heading into key primaries in South Carolina and Florida.
Santorum won on the first ballot with 57 votes to Gingrich's 48, with Rick Perry receiving 13, Mitt Romney 3 and Ron Paul 1. On the second ballot that featured only the top two vote-getters, Santorum received 70 votes to Gingrich's 49.
South Carolina hosts its primary Jan. 21, with Florida's following Jan. 31. Polls show Romney leading in both states.
The meeting was held as Christian leaders remain divided over the social conservative credentials of Romney, the GOP frontrunner.
"It was more than most of us who gathered there thought could happen," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Land made his comments on MSNBC. "We came to this meeting not thinking it was possible to get a strong consensus."
Although Land attended the meeting, he said he does not endorse candidates.
"I'm not endorsing Santorum, but I encouraged those that were there to get behind a candidate, and get behind one candidate -- whoever that was," Land said.
Jim Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, also attended the meeting, which was held at Judge Paul Pressler's ranch near Brenham, Texas. Pressler was a leader during the Southern Baptist Conservative Resurgence.
"The major part of the discussion centered around finding a candidate that expressed our convictions -- perhaps more than electability," Richards told Baptist Press. "I believe that there was at least a majority of consensus that we should look at a candidate who reflected our convictions as the primary reason for selecting the person that we could support."
It was not, Richards said, an anti-Romney meeting.
But the meeting has been followed by some controversy. The Washington Times reported Monday that a "civil war" is breaking out among Christian leaders "over allegations of a rigged election and ballot stuffing" at the event. Whether or not that is hyperbole, the story said some Gingrich backers "were conned into leaving after the second ballot," which would have given Santorum a higher percentage. There were 119 votes cast on the second ballot, 114 on the third ballot. The Times story did not quote any participants by name.
Richards said all three ballots were cast within an hour's time, and he said he saw no hint of mischief. Voting was done via the honor system and via secret ballot, he said.
"There were people coming and going at all times, and I'm not sure how anyone could gauge that there was an exodus of people that supported any particular candidate," he said. "I can't see how a second or third ballot was taken with the perception ... that certain supporters of a certain candidate had left."
Pressler, who hosted the event, was more blunt.
"It is people who did not have the meeting go as they wanted it to [go] that are spinning it and lying about it," Pressler said on the Michael Berry radio program. "... It doesn't have any truth in it whatsoever."
Participants learned at the beginning "that we would have several votes until we had a consensus vote," Pressler said.
The charges of ballot stuffing, Pressler said, are due to a young man who cast votes for a couple who had to leave before the voting had taken place. The man filled out three ballots on the first ballot but not the second or third ballots, Pressler said. The man is employed by the couple, Pressler said. It was wrong to cast the votes in place of the couple, Pressler said, but it did not impact the second or third ballots.
Concerns over Romney are due to his switching from being pro-choice to pro-life within the past decade. Some social conservative leaders question his sincerity. Romney's Mormonism isn't his greatest stumbling block among social conservative leaders, Land said.
"I think for most social conservatives, they would feel better about Romney if he were more Mormon," Land said. "If his position on the life issue and on the marriage issue had always been what his church's position is, there'd be far fewer doubts about him."
Land has said if Romney is the nominee, social conservatives will back him.
Dobson and Gary Bauer have endorsed Santorum.
But some social conservatives are speaking up for Romney, urging others to get behind him. Jordan and Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice -- a leading Christian legal group -- have endorsed Romney.
In December, several social conservative leaders in Romney's home state issued a joint letter to "fellow conservative friends," saying that Romney is a true social conservative. Among the signees was Joseph Reilly, former chairman of the board of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Kristian Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, and Gerald D. D'Avolio, former executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference. The letter was not an endorsement but a way for them to share how they view Romney.
"Some press accounts and bloggers have described Governor Romney in terms we neither have observed nor can we accept," the letter reads. "To the contrary, we, who have been fighting here for the values you also hold, are indebted to him and his responsive staff in demonstrating solid social conservative credentials by undertaking the following actions here in Massachusetts."
While Romney was governor, the leaders said, he: 1) fought for abstinence education, 2) vetoed a bill that would have provided access to the "morning-after pill," which can cause abortions, and vetoed an embryonic stem cell research bill, 3) fought hard to overturn the state court's gay "marriage" decision and 4) enforced an obscure 1913 law that prevented out-of-state gay couples from getting "married."
As governor, Romney also endorsed state and federal constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman, and also spoke before a Senate committee once in support of a federal amendment.
ACLJ attorney David French -- formerly an attorney with the Alliance Defense fund -- has even co-written an e-book available on Amazon.com, "Why Evangelicals Should Support Mitt Romney (And Feel Good about It!)"
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).