The conservative contenders trying to slow Mitt Romney’s sprint to the presidential nomination are running out of time, as the same dynamic that kept the right from coalescing in Iowa two weeks ago again plays to the front-runner’s advantage.
Saturday’s South Carolina primary is the last realistic chance for a social conservative to emerge as a viable alternative to Romney. But a sharp split among the state’s concentration of evangelical Christians and tea party supporters has stubbornly persisted as Romney’s rivals compete fiercely for them.
Rising anxiety on the right over Romney’s momentum was reflected at a prayer breakfast Sunday in Myrtle Beach, attended by candidates Rick Perry and Rick Santorum.
One of the speakers, Eric Metaxas, said he hoped candidates he did not specify “will hear from God and get out of the race.”
Metaxas, a conservative writer who backs Santorum, confirmed in an interview that he was talking about Perry and Newt Gingrich, both of whom were spurned in favor of Santorum during the weekend in an endorsement by a group of influential religious broadcasters and commentators. Metaxas described South Carolina as “the last exit before the bridge” for conservatives trying to stop Romney.
Gingrich, who is running second to Romney in polls here, told voters at a rally Sunday afternoon in Georgetown, S.C., that “if we split our vote three or four ways, we could end up with a moderate who I believe will have a very hard time defeating Obama.”
Earlier, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Gingrich said: “If Romney wins here, he has an enormous advantage, going forward, which is why I think it’s important for every conservative who wants to have a conservative nominee to rally around. And I am the one person who has a realistic chance of defeating him here.”
The former House speaker is calling himself a “Georgia Reagan conservative,” an attempt to capitalize on his political background in a next-door state and fading memories of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory in South Carolina’s primary.
As the Republican field prepared for a televised debate Monday, the prospects of a splintered vote on the right were, if anything, increasing because of the evangelical leaders’ endorsement of Santorum. (The planned departure from the race by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is not expected to have an effect on the competition between Gingrich, Santorum and Perry.)
Support for Santorum among Christian evangelicals has already been evident in the first two tests of 2012, where exit polls showed the former Pennsylvania senator ran more than 10 percentage points better among white evangelical Protestants than among other Republicans.
At the sold-out prayer breakfast, he drew applause from the crowd of 350 when he referred to how “miraculously” the evangelical leaders, who weren’t expected to agree on a candidate, had backed him. He urged conservatives to ignore the advice of outsiders “who don’t speak our language,” as well as recent polls that show him tied for third here with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Still, doubts about Santorum’s ability to defeat President Obama were reflected in interviews with voters at South Carolina churches Sunday.
Ed Taylor, 71, who is undecided, said Santorum’s values probably matched up best with his. “I think he’s a great guy, but whether he can whip Obama, I don’t know,” he said. As Taylor greeted people entering Riverland Hills Baptist Church in Irmo, he said that if he had to make a choice, he would go with Gingrich because he believed he was the most knowledgeable.
“He’s just got the answers,” Taylor said. “He knows what’s going on. I think he’s the one who will stand up in Obama’s face.”
As in Iowa, Santorum is counting on a late surge. He has begun running campaign commercials, but he still has far less TV and radio advertising working for him than his rivals. At the same time, his rising prominence has made him a target of attack ads from other candidates and their supporters, including Romney’s.
“You can’t hardly turn on a TV here without seeing an ad that is attacking Rick Santorum for his fiscal policies,” Perry told CNN.
The Texas governor, the candidate with the strongest ties to evangelicals early on, has fared the worst so far in South Carolina. He summoned 30,000 people to a Houston prayer meeting a week before he entered the Republican race; he now struggles to attract more than 50 people to campaign rallies and has languished in the single digits in recent polls.
Romney finished fourth in South Carolina four years ago but is making a far more aggressive try this year. He has the backing of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who was elected on a burst of tea party enthusiasm in 2010.
His campaign has mailed brochures to South Carolina voters that feature a color photo of a prayerful Romney in coat and tie, his head bowed and eyes closed, along with a signed pledge to be true to “my faith” as president. The brochure notes that he has belonged to the same church “his entire life.” But it does not mention his Mormon faith, a barrier for some Protestant evangelicals who don’t consider Mormons to be Christians.
Ralph Reed, a longtime conservative Christian political strategist, said that Mormonism was less of a factor this year.
In Iowa, exit polls showed 61% of caucus-going Protestant evangelicals voted for either a Mormon (Romney) or a Catholic (Santorum or Gingrich). Reed said Christian fundamentalists were voting on “electability, likability, who shares their values” and the economy, especially in this hard-hit state.
“The sort of lazy narrative is that they’re driven by identity politics, and all you have to do is come in here and say, ‘Praise the Lord’ and quote scripture, and they’re going to vote for you. It’s not true,” Reed said.
Along with all the other candidates, Romney is to appear Monday at a rally for members of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a Christian fundamentalist group organized by Reed that also sponsored Sunday’s prayer breakfast.
Times staff writers John Hoeffel in Irmo, S.C., and Alana Semuels in Georgetown, S.C., contributed to this report.