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Santorum Seeks Momentum After Evangelical Leaders’ Support

Rick Santorum, buoyed by support over the weekend from national evangelical leaders, is urging Republican voters in the final week of campaigning before South Carolina’s primary to coalesce behind him as the alternative to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

“If all you think we need to do to get this economy going and get this country on the right track is to cut government and reduce taxes, you don’t understand America,” Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, said yesterday at a “Faith, Family & Freedom” rally in Florence, South Carolina.

“America is a moral enterprise, not an economic enterprise,” Santorum said. “Don’t compromise on what you know is best for this country,” he added. “South Carolina, vote your conscience, vote your values.”

The decision by religious leaders within the Republican Party to endorse Santorum before South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary may be the last chance to stall Romney’s march toward the party nomination. He made history with back-to-back wins in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary.

Santorum sought to play down the effect of another Romney boost, from Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor and former U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama, who today suspended his campaign and gave his support to Romney.

Backing a Moderate

Santorum, speaking to reporters at a breakfast event in Columbia, South Carolina, ahead of Huntsman’s announcement, said it represented a moderate backing a moderate and would have little effect on the conservative vote.

Huntsman’s withdrawal narrows the Republican field after Romney claimed an eight-vote win in Iowa and 16 percentage-point victory in New Hampshire.

In 2008, 60 percent of South Carolina Republican primary voters said in exit polls that they consider themselves “born again” or evangelical Christians, who often oppose abortion rights and gay marriage. Romney’s record on those issues is mixed. When running for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts in 1994, he said he would protect abortion rights. He now says he’s changed his mind on the issue and opposes them.

Evangelicals helped propel former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee into second place in South Carolina four years ago. What’s unclear is whether Santorum can use the endorsement of religious leaders to his advantage. A late embrace by Iowa evangelical leaders helped him capture second place in the caucuses, just eight votes behind Romney.

New Hampshire Vote

In New Hampshire, Santorum failed to capitalize on that momentum and dropped to fifth place behind Romney, Texas Representative Ron Paul, Huntsman and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich respectively.

“It would have been better if it happened a lot earlier -- or even a week earlier,” said David R. White, chairman of the political science department at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina. “It’s too little, too late.”

Richard Viguerie, chairman of the website ConservativeHQ and a Republican political consultant, said in an interview today that he was among those at the Texas gathering of evangelicals who spoke on Santorum’s behalf and that it was a fair process.

If Romney emerges as the nominee, Viguerie said, “He will be depicted as part of that 1 percent” in a class-warfare debate with Obama.

Eighty percent of conservatives are undecided, “but if the vast majority of the 80 percent begins to focus on Santorum, that can mean tens of millions of dollars overnight and much grassroots support,” Viguerie said.

Debate Tonight

Santorum will have a chance to highlight his new backing in Myrtle Beach, where Republican rivals are gathering ahead of tonight’s Fox News Channel and Wall Street Journal presidential debate. Another debate on CNN is set for Jan. 19.

Gingrich, who is challenging Santorum’s claim as the Romney alternative, told reporters in Myrtle Beach today that because of Santorum’s low standing in the polls, a vote for him is “functionally voting for Governor Romney to be the nominee because he’s not going to beat him.”

Romney won the backing of the Greenville News. Huntsman’s endorsement may make it easier for the two-time presidential candidate to lock up the votes of those not swayed by social issues.

Paul, who has made just one campaign appearance in South Carolina since his second-place showing in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10, did so yesterday to collect the endorsement of an anti-tax and anti-government spending Tea Party champion, State Senator Tom Davis.

Perry’s Lost Standing

Texas Governor Rick Perry, who was initially the top choice of conservative leaders who gathered in Texas on Jan. 14, was unable to hold them as his candidacy has slipped to sixth place in most public opinion polls.

Santorum received 85 of 114 votes on the third ballot at the gathering on a ranch near Bleiblerville, Texas, defeating Gingrich, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told reporters on a conference call.

“We feel very good about that,” Santorum said to reporters after yesterday’s rally in Florence. “We feel like, that conservatives are coalescing around our campaign and that’s going to be good for us not just in South Carolina but as we go forward.”

Gingrich told reporters today that the evangelicals’ support for Santorum “has a very marginal impact.”

‘Soft’ Support

Dave Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, and a Republican consultant, said Gingrich’s second-place standing in three statewide polls is built on “soft” support and that “a lot of people are regular listeners to Christian radio stations and they will follow this as a cue to help them.”

“I think most people will make up their mind Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” said Woodard.

J.C. Watts, a former Oklahoma congressman who is a national co-chairman for the Gingrich campaign and attended the Texas gathering, said it’s incorrect to describe the voting there as an endorsement. He said it was more correct to say Santorum won a “majority” of the support.

Watts said that, although the primary campaign could go on weeks or months longer, “after South Carolina, there will have to be a consensus candidate” for social conservatives.

9.9 Percent Unemployment

The South Carolina (BEESSC) contest will play out in an economic environment worse than the national average. The state’s unemployment rate was 9.9 percent in November, the most recent month available, compared with December’s national rate of 8.5 percent. That’s high enough to put South Carolina in the top 10 states for the most unemployment in November.

On the final weekend before the primary, advertising also grew more frequent across the state.

The Red White and Blue Fund, a group supporting Santorum’s campaign, began airing a commercial that promotes his opposition to abortion and radical Islam.

Romney’s campaign released an online ad that seeks to address concerns some voters might have about his changed position on abortion during his political career.

A political action committee backing Perry began airing an ad that attacks Gingrich on ethics and accuses Santorum of voting for pay raises and locally targeted federal spending projects known as earmarks.

Winning Our Future, a committee backing Gingrich, is airing two new ads in South Carolina. One links Romney to President Barack Obama’s 2010 health-care overhaul and says Romney is “not conservative” and “not electable.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Talev in Washington at mtalev@bloomberg.net; John McCormick in Chicago at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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