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Rick Santorum wants to be God's chosen one in South Carolina

Reporting from Florence, S.C. -- In the race to be the most sincere Christian candidate for president, Rick Santorum looks like the front-runner.

Out on the edge of town here Sunday afternoon, out among the big box stores and strip malls, at a family restaurant called Percy and Willie's, Santorum came by to shake hands and speak to a crowd of diners who had likely spent the morning praising the Lord at one of the area’s many evangelical churches.

"America is a moral enterprise, not an economic enterprise," Santorum declared. The United States is successful not because of its powerful military, its economic system or its form of government, he said;  it is successful because of the American people’s faith in God. The news media don’t get it, he said, “and I’m running against a president who doesn’t believe it.” But the good people of South Carolina understand “the obligation we have to lead good, moral and decent lives.”

The folks at Percy and Willie’s did seem to understand. They applauded enthusiastically. They nodded their heads in agreement. And, an hour later when the candidate headed for the door, they told reporters how much they liked Santorum’s sincere expressions of faith. Oh, not everyone – there were a couple of Ron Paul fans who were upset Santorum refused to say he’d abolish the Federal Reserve -- but most seemed convinced they had just heard from a man of God.

Jamie Thompkins, an attractive, middle-aged teacher from Georgetown, described herself as an ultra, ultra-conservative who is happy to be living in the middle of America’s Bible Belt. Santorum appeals to her, she said, because “he would put God before anything else. He’s going to really rely on God and not rely on what everyone else says.”

Another woman, a local psychologist who, like a lot of people here, didn’t want her name showing up in the media, said religious faith is an extremely important factor in her choice for president. She said she could tell that, with Santorum, it is not just rhetoric: “He talks the talk that we talk.”

And this, despite the fact Santorum is a Roman Catholic. In an era not too long ago, that would have killed his chances among the devout Protestants of the South. The psychologist said times had changed and, besides, “Even though he’s a devout Catholic, he follows the commandments." The Catholic thing didn’t bother Jamie Thompkins either. “He’s different from your typical Catholic,” she said.

Neither of the women was as impressed with the expressions of faith coming from other candidates --  Newt Gingrich, for instance. Thompkins said the former speaker of the House is strong and smart, but, when it comes to faith, he doesn’t have what Santorum has.

Still, Gingrich is trying. So is Rick Perry, the only guy in the race who can claim to be an honest-to-God evangelical Protestant. Passing the faith test is vital in a state where 60 percent of Republican voters in the last presidential primary described themselves as evangelicals.

The candidates are getting theological questions thrown at them that are direct and personal. The Times’ Maeve Reston reported that at a campaign event in Hilton Head on Friday, Mitt Romney was asked whether he believed in the divine saving grace of Jesus Christ. Romney said, “Yes I do.”

He could probably have left it at that, but he went on: “And I would note that there are people in our nation that have different beliefs; there are people of the Jewish faith, and people of the Islamic faith, and other faiths who believe other things, and our president will be president of the people of all faiths.”

That kind of ecumenical riff probably did not endear him to the evangelicals who are already suspicious of Romney's Mormon beliefs.

Gingrich, meanwhile, visited the sprawling Cathedral of Praise evangelical church in Charleston on Sunday to give the congregants a history lecture on the important role of faith in the founding of the nation. At the same hour, his sisters were up in Columbia at the First Baptist Church listening to an orchestra and 200-member choir warm up the assembly for the pastor’s televised sermon. The Gingrich sisters had no speaking role, but one of them, Susan, told a reporter she was there to reassure people that her brother’s recent conversion to Catholicism had changed him and deepened his devotion to God.

That newfound faith was not quite enough to win Gingrich the backing of the 100 evangelical leaders who met in Texas last week. After pondering an endorsement of their born-again brother in Christ, Rick Perry, and after giving Gingrich strong consideration, they settled on Santorum. Still, by most reports, Santorum has not sewed up the evangelical vote. And if it stays split, Romney is very likely to come out on top in Saturday’s primary.

A week is a long time in politics, though, and miracles do happen. For Santorum, it’s a matter of faith.

RELATED:

Mitt Romney, job killer?

Jon Huntsman heading nowhere fast

Newt Gingrich courts churchgoers in South Carolina

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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