Christians wary of Romney
WASHINGTON & SANTA FE, NM (By Erik Eckholm, NYT) January 9, 2012 ― Dismayed by the prospect of Mitt Romney as the Republican presidential nominee, conservative Christian leaders are intensifying discussions about jointly backing an alternative candidate.
The plan disclosed this week for dozens of conservative Christian leaders and political strategists to meet in Texas next Friday and Saturday, a week before the South Carolina primary, is the latest of several such efforts in the last six weeks to seek an elusive unity. Among the conveners of next week’s gathering are luminaries of the evangelical movement, including James C. Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, and Donald E. Wildmon, the retired president of the American Family Association.
Other evangelical leaders are holding discussions and raising the possibility of later meetings if the gathering in Texas does not yield a consensus.
But time is running short. Like evangelical voters, the leaders of the religious right have been divided over which Republican to back, dispersing their support in a way that has helped Mr. Romney and undercut their influence on the nominating process. With Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, in a strong position heading into the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, the leaders said they knew they had to move quickly if they wanted to shape the outcome.
In a campaign defined in large part by the conservatives’ intense desire to eject President Obama from the White House, the differences among evangelicals underscore the difficulties Republicans have had in putting aside divisions and getting enthusiastically behind someone they feel embodies their values and can win the election.
By effectively tying Mr. Romney in Iowa, Mr. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, has persuaded some influential evangelicals to give him another look. But others argue that only Newt Gingrich — who, like Mr. Santorum, is a conservative Roman Catholic — has the campaign resources and intellectual heft to win. A few still think that Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who is not actively campaigning in New Hampshire but plans to contest the primary in South Carolina on Jan. 21, should stick around in case the other two burn out. Both Mr. Perry and Mr. Santorum are headed to South Carolina on Sunday.
“This is the $100,000 question: Can the evangelical leadership unify behind Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum or Rick Perry?” said John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Policy Council.
“There’s a conversation going on as we speak,” he said. “We’re attempting to see if leaders can get on the same page.”
How the splintering of like-minded opponents is helping Mr. Romney was illustrated on Friday by the results of a CNN/Time poll in South Carolina, where, as in Iowa, religious conservatives are an especially important component of the electorate. Mr. Romney was the choice of 37 percent of all likely voters. Mr. Santorum was at 19 percent, and Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker, was at 18 percent. Mr. Perry was at 5 percent.
Many religious conservatives question Mr. Romney’s bona fides on what to them are non-negotiable issues, like opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Pointing to the large conservative electoral gains in 2010 and Mr. Obama’s weakened position, they see a rare opportunity this year to put a “true conservative” in the White House, and many say they will be disappointed if Mr. Romney wins the nomination.
Evangelicals are haunted by what happened in the South Carolina primary in 2008, when many of them did not rush to support Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister who had won in Iowa. Former Senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee took some of his potential votes, allowing Senator John McCain, who never won the affection of evangelicals, a crucial victory.
“We’re moving closer to the point where a decision needs to be made,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian conservative group. “I think people understand that the stakes are very high.”
But some political experts say that a Texas-style meeting cannot solve a problem that must be sorted out by voters, and that changes this year in the Republican primary rules will give candidates more time to gather delegates.
“It’s way too early to panic,” said David Barton, a Christian author and political strategist who has been a consultant to several candidates. “If leaders did endorse one candidate, I think they’d wind up being ignored by their followers.”
Mr. Barton noted that under the new rules, all primaries before April 1 must apportion delegates according to the share of votes each candidate receives, rather than winner-take-all. This means that finishing second or third can still be valuable, if not producing the panache of a victory, and that it could take more time for a clear winner to emerge.
Even after the Florida primary on Jan. 31, it should be “arithmetically possible” for one of the more conservative candidates to wrest the nomination from Mr. Romney, said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. But three stiff conditions would have to be met, he said: a largely unified social conservative vote, adequate financing for primaries that in some states require $2 million per week for television advertisements, and decent local campaign infrastructures.
While some Christian conservatives are reluctant to support Mr. Gingrich because of his marital history and other questions from the past, the current argument is largely over which candidate has the best chance of winning.
Mr. Stemberger, the Florida advocate, had endorsed Mr. Perry, a Protestant, weeks ago. But in an interview in the wake of Mr. Perry’s poor showing in Iowa, he noted that Mr. Gingrich’s poll numbers looked good in Florida, and he expressed a view shared by several other leaders. “I think probably Gingrich is the most viable in the general election,” he said.
David Lane, a political organizer known for mobilizing pastors around the country, said that Mr. Santorum did not have the money or organization to repeat his bright flash in Iowa and that “he’s drawing votes away from the only two guys that can be competitive with Romney — Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry.”
“When he gets ready to, Romney will flick him with his finger like a flea,” he said of Mr. Santorum. “I’m not against Santorum; I just don’t think he’s viable politically.”
Of the planned meeting in Texas, Mr. Lane said unless the participants all agreed to throw their support to the candidate who does best in South Carolina, “the meeting will be worthless.”