Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Tea Party

David Horsey/Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Myrtle Beach, S.C. -- Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are reading from the same script as they vie to be the “not Romney” champion of the frightened right. Monday, both candidates roved around this city of deserted beach resorts warning conservative voters that the reelection of Barack Obama would bring an end to America as we have known it.

Among the alarmed were members of South Carolina’s tea party. They were gathered on the third floor of a conference center looking out over a sandy beach occupied by no one but four gray-haired Occupy Wall Street activists. The gray-haired conservative activists inside took no note of the protesters and their hand-made signs; two presidential candidates occupied their attention.

Santorum was up first. He talked about American exceptionalism; about how, in an age of kings and emperors, the founding fathers created a Constitution that declared an individual’s rights were derived from God, not granted by government.

“Any rights a government gives you, they can --” Santorum paused and the tea partiers responded in unison -- “Take away!”

The right to pursue happiness, articulated in the Declaration of Independence, also had a particular meaning when Thomas Jefferson penned the words, Santorum claimed. According to the ex-senator in his ubiquitous sweater vest, pursuing happiness back then meant doing “not what you want to do, but what you ought to do.”

When it was Gingrich’s turn, he made precisely the same points. “We are the first country in history to say that power comes from God to each of you personally, and your rights are inalienable,” the ex-speaker of the House said. And, as for pursuing happiness, “Happiness in the 18th century meant wisdom and virtue, not acquisition and hedonism,” he said.

These remarkably similar tutorials on America’s foundational ideas set up the crowd for identical campaign pitches: All that is good and unique about the United States is threatened by Barack Obama. Only a man with unflinching conservative convictions can evict him from the Oval Office. And only if South Carolina’s conservatives unite around one candidate as an alternative to the disturbingly moderate Mitt Romney can Americans be saved from a future of servitude and dependency.

The one point on which Gingrich and Santorum diverged was who that candidate should be.

From the tea party confab, Gingrich moved on to the big tent set up for Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Presidential Forum across the street from the convention center where the candidates’ debate would take place a few hours later. Santorum had already been there. Taking the stage accompanied by the curiously hedonistic lyrics of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” Gingrich repeated his message of impending doom.

He warned that Obama is the most radical president in American history, a president who wants to transform the country into a European-style socialist welfare state where the people are infantilized supplicants. (Yes, Santorum had made exactly the same point earlier.) If he is reelected, Obama will feel empowered to become more radical in his second term, Gingrich declared.

If that happens, “We will be the generation who gave up what America is and what it has been.” Actually, Santorum said that, not Gingrich, but what’s the difference?

The lack of difference has left staunch conservatives in a quandary. If they cannot unite behind one or the other man, Romney will win South Carolina and, almost certainly, be the Republican nominee. They all know this, yet they remain hopelessly split in their affections.

As I was exiting the tea party convention, I got into a conversation with Joe Klein, Time magazine’s veteran political columnist. I said the problem for apocalyptic conservatives is that they love more than one man. Klein corrected me.

“They like more than one,” he said. “Their problem is they don’t love any of them.”