Jerry Helton, pastor of the House of Prayer church in rural Blairsville, Georgia, hasn’t decided who he’ll vote for in tomorrow’s Republican presidential primary. He does know who he won’t support: Mitt Romney.
“Mitt being a conservative, that’s a concept a lot of people are still getting used to,” said Helton, who oversees a congregation of 700 people in the heart of the Chattahoochee National Forest near the Tennessee border.
While Romney works to cement his lead in the overall race, in the South the contest has centered on a duel between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Both men, fighting to emerge as the alternative to Romney, are counting on Southern evangelical voters like Helton to keep their presidential aspirations alive.
In Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma, which cast ballots on Super Tuesday, Christian evangelicals are likely to make up a majority of voters. In 2008, self-identified evangelicals constituted more than 60 percent of Republican primary voters in Georgia, exit polls showed. In Tennessee and Oklahoma, more than 7 in 10 were evangelicals.
“The socially conservative message is going to go over well in the Southern states that have not been excited about the perceived front-runner,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a group opposed to abortion rights and gay marriage. “They just don’t think Romney’s conservative.”
Wins in the South this week may give the candidates a boost as the race moves into Alabama and Mississippi, which hold contests on March 13, and Louisiana on March 24. Only Representative Ron Paul of Texas among the candidates has spent little time in the region. Romney spent yesterday in Tennessee and Georgia, a sign his campaign sees an opportunity to do well in those states.
An American Research Group poll released yesterday showed a tightening race in Tennessee, with 35 percent of likely Republican voters favoring Santorum, 31 percent backing Romney, 20 percent supporting Gingrich and 9 percent in favor of Paul. A Public Policy Polling survey in the state found Santorum leading Romney by 5 points and Gingrich by 7 points.
Gingrich, 68, is counting on a strong showing in Georgia, home of the district he represented in Congress for two decades, to revive his campaign. He spent most of the past week stumping in town halls, churches and party offices across the state.
Gingrich Leads Georgia
Gingrich led Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, by 14 points and Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, by 16 points in a survey of likely Georgia voters by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for the Georgia Newspaper Partnership. Still, 39 percent of respondents said Romney has the best chance of winning, the poll reported yesterday.
Santorum is seeking to make the case that social and fiscal conservatives can determine the outcome of the primaries if they don’t split their support between him and Gingrich, a onetime U.S. House speaker.
“It’s always harder when you got two conservative candidates running,” he said on “Fox News Sunday” yesterday.
Attending services with his wife and three of their seven children at the Bellevue Baptist Church, a 7,000-member mega-church in the Memphis suburbs, Santorum, 53, bent his head to accept prayers from the congregation, which applauded when he took the stage.
“We so desperately need for God to raise up godly people who will run for office,” said Pastor Steve Gaines.
Campaigning in Tennessee and Georgia over the past week, Santorum has argued that children born to unwed couples and “broken families” increase government spending.
“Family is the foundation of our country,” he told several hundred voters at a Hixson, Tennessee, church on Feb. 25. “We don’t need the government to fix things for us!”
He added: “True happiness comes from doing God’s will in your life,” striking a contrast with Romney, a former private-equity executive who has focused on economic growth.
“This is God’s country, baby,” said Denny Acres, a self-employed computer consultant from Dalton, Georgia, who supports Santorum. “We like conservative ideas.”
Earlier this year, Santorum, a Roman Catholic who has home-schooled his children, emerged as the choice of 150 Christian conservatives who met at a Texas ranch in an effort to consolidate the opposition to Romney, a Mormon.
“Santorum exemplified that there’s been this coming together around moral issues, since those issues have been at the top of the agenda,’ said Clemson University Professor Laura Olson, who specializes in religion and politics.
Attacks May Help
And while Santorum’s comments that President Barack Obama follows “some phony theology” and the late President John F. Kennedy’s call for separation of church and state made him want to “throw up” may make some voters uncomfortable, they help conservative evangelicals identify with him, said Olson.
Last week, the Christian Post, an evangelical publication, published an article, “Catholic politicians you thought were evangelical.” Topping the list: Santorum.
“I’m really thankful for his faith and family because I’m a Christian,” said Bethany Gentry, a 24-year-old mother who works for a nonprofit organization and is backing Santorum.
Santorum has turned to evangelical networks to broadcast his message.
The Susan B. Anthony list, an anti-abortion rights group, ran a bus tour across the South last week to promote his candidacy. Santorum has also tapped into home-schooling parents through networks such as Facebook.
Watching for Him
Standing with her two sons outside the town hall building in Dalton, Georgia, Pam Hall, a home-schooling mother, said she encouraged friends and people at her church to attend a Santorum event.
“The home-school community is kind of watching out for him,” said Hall, a former public school teacher who lives in Ellijay in northern Georgia.
As accepting as they are of Santorum’s Catholicism, some Christian conservatives have struggled with Romney’s Mormon faith.
“I don’t believe they are Christians,” said Pastor Woody Rimes of First Baptist Church in McComb, Mississippi.
In the 11 state contests so far, Romney has performed on average 15 percent better among non-evangelical voters than with evangelicals, according to the Pew Center for Religion in Public Life.
Romney yesterday stopped in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Snellville, Georgia, an area where he led former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in the 2008 Republican primary race.
At the Snellville pancake brunch in a high school cafeteria packed with more than 1,000 people, Romney, 64, suggested that his competitors lack the experience necessary to revive the economy.
“The economy is what I do, it’s what I know,” he said. “I haven’t just read about it, I haven’t just debated it, I haven’t just talked about it in subcommittees.”
His campaign declined to predict a victory in either state.
“I don’t know if we can win Georgia or Tennessee, but I know that we can take delegates out of there,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney strategist. “More important than winning this state or that state is achieving the requisite number of delegates to obtain the nomination.”
Even if Romney loses states such as Georgia tomorrow, he’s still likely to win Southern voters in the general election. Republican presidential candidate John McCain won Georgia by 52 percent, Tennessee by 57 percent, and Oklahoma by 67 percent of the vote in 2008.
Mark DeMoss, a Southern Baptist businessman who helps Romney with outreach to social conservatives, said he’s urged evangelicals to consider electability and economic experience.
“There’s not a distinguishable difference in these four Republican candidates on social issues,” said DeMoss, who owns a public relations business in Georgia. “You’ve got to have another criteria to pick our candidate, and I would argue that that criteria should be competence and electability.”
For some, socially conservative positions matter more.
“I’ve heard people ask, will we be any better off if Romney goes in then if Obama goes in,” said Rimes, the Mississippi pastor who’s still undecided. “My prayer is that America will turn to God. We need a revival in this land.”