Evangelical Gathering Picks Santorum As Their Champion

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Rick Santorum. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

A group of 150 of the country's leading social conservative and evangelical leaders met yesterday on a ranch outside Houston and, after three rounds of balloting, decided whom they wanted as their official anyone-but-Romney alternative: Rick Santorum. Though the meeting was described by some as
"too little, too late," it was still seen as the last great hope for a real challenge to Mitt Romney who, after his wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, has already begun to give off that "inevitable nominee" glow. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, who described the meeting as "not a 'bash Mitt Romney'" one, told the Washington Post: “I will have to admit that what I did not think was possible appears to be possible. There is clearly a unified group here.” While much of the recent media focus has been on the Romney Bain-baiting in South Carolina coming from Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, this endorsement may be enough to boost Santorum in South Carolina, a heavily evangelical state.

The Times' Nate Silvers agrees, tweeting a little over an hour ago:

I'm not buying the CW [conventional wisdom] that evangelical endorsement of Santorum is too little, too late. SC still very fluid.

It wouldn't be surprising, for instance, to see the last of Rick Perry's support migrating to Santorum's side of the ledger. (Several publications, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the National Journal, called this decision a major blow to Perry's campaign, though the candidate claims he will still contest South Carolina.) As for the other candidates, they all are lacking in at least one of the key social conservative departments: Newt Gingrich's marital infidelity, Mitt Romney's flip-flopping on abortion, Huntsman's just overall centrism, Ron Paul's (limited) "let them be" attitude toward gays. Easy pickings for an evangelical-approved Santorum.

That said, this also may not change anything. After all, the gathering did not even discuss whether to prod any of the other candidates to bow out of the race. Ultimately, we may end up seeing a repeat of 2008 where John McCain squeaked by in the state after much of the evangelical vote split between short-lived candidate Fred Thompson, of Law & Order fame, and former Arkansas governor (and pastor) Mike Huckabee.