Santorum endorsement doesn't impress churchgoers

Reuters News
|
Posted: Jan 15, 2012 3:38 PM
Santorum endorsement doesn't impress churchgoers

By Deborah Charles

NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum touted an 11th-hour endorsement from conservative Christian leaders on Sunday ahead of South Carolina's crucial nominating contest but it appeared to have little influence on churchgoers.

With South Carolina's January 21 primary approaching, time is running short for Santorum and other Republican candidates who hope to slow front-runner Mitt Romney's march to the Republican presidential nomination.

Santorum said Saturday's endorsement by evangelical leaders proved that he is a better choice to take on Democratic President Barack Obama.

"They know I'm the consistent conservative," Santorum said on "Fox News Sunday." "They saw me as someone who has the best chance of winning."

The backing appeared to have little impact among evangelicals, who account for more than half of South Carolina's Republican voters.

"I make decisions for myself and I don't listen to what a bunch of leaders say to do," said Victoria Jaworowski, who was attending the Cathedral of Praise mega-church in North Charleston.

The Christian leaders meeting in Texas only endorsed Santorum narrowly in a vote that went to the third ballot. It is not clear how they will help the former Pennsylvania senator in terms of money or staff to help him campaign.

Romney has opened up a 21-point lead in the state ahead of the primary as the conservative vote remains splintered, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Saturday.

Many voters say they are willing to overlook Romney's moderate past in order to unite behind a candidate who can beat Obama in the November 6 election.

SECOND IN IOWA, BACK IN THE PACK IN NH

Santorum, a Catholic, rode the support of evangelical voters to a surprise second-place finish in Iowa's January 3 caucus, losing to Romney by just eight votes. He finished far back in the pack a week later in New Hampshire, where religiously motivated voters are less prominent.

South Carolina could be favorable terrain for Santorum as evangelicals accounted for 60 percent of the Republican primary vote in 2008. But several candidates split the evangelical vote that year and Senator John McCain, the eventual nominee, was able to win the state with strong support from military retirees and other voters who saw national security as a top priority.

That could happen again this year, as several other candidates are competing with Santorum for the evangelical vote.

Several members of the First Baptist Church in Florence, South Carolina, said they had not decided on a candidate.

"You just haven't seen that standard bearer rise up," said insurance salesman Mike Newton.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll shows Santorum getting 16 percent of the vote, tied for second place with U.S. Representative Ron Paul. Paul, who attracts a fervent libertarian following, has not campaigned in the state in the past week.

Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry also have courted evangelicals and other conservatives, while Romney has won support from the party's business wing.

Senator Jim DeMint, a leader among conservatives, praised Santorum and Gingrich at a Tea Party convention in Myrtle Beach but said he would not make an endorsement.

NO ENDORSEMENTS AT CHURCH

Santorum spoke on Saturday at Cathedral of Praise, one of the state's largest evangelical churches, and Gingrich addressed the congregation on Sunday. The church's pastor, Mike Lewis, said he would remain neutral in the primary.

"Though we can't endorse any of them or stand in opposition, we can be nice to them," he said before introducing Gingrich.

With the shaky U.S. economy a top concern for voters, Santorum has sought to broaden his appeal beyond religious conservatives with a pitch to revive domestic manufacturing through tax breaks.

Although he has declined to join in Gingrich and Perry's attacks on Romney's career in finance, Santorum has criticized the financial industry as a whole.

"You need a leader who's going to go out on the Republican side and fight the interests of Wall Street and big business," he said in Gaffney, South Carolina, on Friday.

Santorum also has said the statewide healthcare overhaul that Romney put in place while governor of Massachusetts served as a model for Obama's national healthcare reform, which is toxic among conservatives.

In campaign appearances, Romney has kept the focus on Obama. But allies are targeting Santorum with negative television ads in South Carolina, reprising a tactic that eroded Gingrich's lead in Iowa.

South Carolina could be a make-or-break-state for many candidates. The winner of South Carolina's primary has gone on to capture the Republican nomination in every election since 1980. Those who finish far back could have a hard time raising money and convincing voters in other states that they are still viable.

Gingrich and Perry said they would reassess their campaigns if they did not win or come in second in South Carolina.

Romney won endorsements from newspapers in Greenville, South Carolina, and Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sunday. Jon Huntsman, who finished third in New Hampshire, won the endorsement of the newspaper in Columbia, the state capital.

(Additional reporting by Sandra Maler and Thomas Ferraro in Washington and Colleen Jenkins, Andy Sullivan and Nick Carey in South Carolina; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Bill Trott)