Social Conservatives Rallying Around Rising Santorum in Republican Contest

The Republican Party’s socially conservative base, conflicted for months over which presidential candidate to back, is increasingly coalescing behind Rick Santorum in a shift that some observers say may energize his bid and slow Mitt Romney’s momentum toward the nomination.

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, collected no delegates when he swept a trio of Republican contests Feb. 7, yet he demonstrated his growing popularity among voters who make opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage a priority.

These voters -- galvanized by opposition to President Barack Obama’s decision last month to mandate that religious employers include birth-control coverage in their health plans - - are becoming more motivated to back Santorum in an effort to draw the starkest possible contrast with the president.

“At the grassroots level, I would say that there is a strong plurality -- if not a majority -- for Rick Santorum” among conservatives, said Richard Land, the president of the Nashville, Tennessee-based Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “His viability was his only real weakness; well, he had a clean sweep” in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado.

Courting Conservatives

Leaders are gathering today in Washington for the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Santorum, Romney and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, all vying for their loyalties, are scheduled to speak tomorrow. Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee, is to close the event on Feb. 11.

Santorum’s wins in the Midwest and mountain West, weeks after he was belatedly declared the winner of Iowa’s caucuses, give him a chance to consolidate his standing with the most socially and fiscally conservative Republicans, said Henry Olsen, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Santorum also can appeal to “somewhat conservative” voters, the party’s “silent majority” whose backing he needs to surpass Romney, Olsen said.

“What Santorum earned is an opportunity,” Olsen said. “First, he’s got to unite the base, but then he’s got to reach out to these people who tend to like candidates who are not bombastic, not shrilly partisan, and who can come across as the safe Republican.”

‘Voices of Our Party’

Santorum, 53, has about three weeks to accomplish that, with the next contests in Arizona and Michigan set for Feb. 28. He started in the minutes immediately following word of his Missouri and Minnesota victories, telling supporters at his Feb. 7 victory party in St. Charles, Missouri, that his wins were “a victory for the voices of our party -- conservatives and Tea Party people who are out there every single day in the vineyards, building the conservative movement in this country, building the base of the Republican Party.”

“I don’t stand here to claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” Santorum said of the former Massachusetts governor, 64, who leads the delegate hunt. “I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.”

Campaigning in Oklahoma today, Santorum said he would repeal many of Obama’s regulations and get the government out of the way of business and personal decisions such as contraception. He said “the left” uses issues such as the environment to scare Americans and “lord it over” them.

“The left is always looking for a way to control you,” Santorum said in Oklahoma City. “They’re always trying to make you feel guilty so you’ll give them power.”

Hanging Back

Santorum also sprinkled frequent references to God in his speech today. That language helps his message resonate with voters, said Foster Friess, a fund manager from Wyoming who is helping finance an outside group supporting Santorum.

“He stresses that our rights come from the Creator, not the government,” Friess told Bloomberg Television today.

In a fundraising appeal yesterday, Santorum said if his backers “take immediate action, we can unite together behind a single conservative standard bearer and win the Republican nomination.”

Last month, it was Gingrich who said Santorum should consider dropping out. “The longer conservatives stay split, the harder it’s going to be for us” to beat Romney, Gingrich said on Fox News before the Jan. 31 Florida primary, which Romney won.

Conservative leaders say their movement -- including religiously driven voters as well as Tea Party devotees who are determined to shrink government -- is still hanging back, slow to embrace a Republican contender.

Seeing Movement

“With each of these victories here, you can see conservatives moving more and more toward Santorum,” said Richard Viguerie, a veteran Republican direct-mail strategist who heads ConservativeHQ.com and is backing Santorum. “It hasn’t happened yet. I think it’s fair to say that probably the vast majority of conservatives are still on the sidelines.”

Still, Viguerie said he expects that to change over the next two to four weeks.

“There’s a majority of Republicans who have dug in their heels that they do not want Mitt Romney, and a majority part of the Republican leadership that does not want Gingrich. That leaves Santorum as a consensus, compromise candidate,” he said.

While it remains to be seen whether Santorum can collect enough campaign cash to sustain his momentum, he is benefiting from a surge in support from conservatives outraged by the Obama administration’s contraceptive-coverage decision.

‘War on Faith’

The issue “not only boosts Santorum, it puts social conservatives on the political equivalent of amphetamines between now and Nov. 6, because they believe they have a president who has declared war on faith,” said Land, who hasn’t endorsed a candidate.

The Catholic Church and some other religions equate contraception with abortion. Santorum has made his Catholic faith and anti-abortion stance calling cards of his political career.

Social conservatives are “kicking into gear, they’re writing checks and opening their wallets” for Santorum, said the Reverend Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, which represents thousands of churches on moral and social issues.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at   or Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.

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

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