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Evangelical leaders’ vote to endorse Santorum was sharply divided, participants say

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Although last weekend’s vote among evangelical leaders appeared to be an overwhelming endorsement of former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) — “a clear majority of support for a single conservative candidate,” in the words of organizer Tony Perkins — several of those who were there say that it was a far more divided group than the final ballot indicated.

Specifically, they say, a number of supporters of former House speaker and GOP presidential rival Newt Gingrich (Ga.) had actually left the gathering before the final ballot. It was running late, they say, and some of the leaders had to catch airplanes so they could make Saturday night services and other obligations.

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“Yes, I left. When I left, the vote was fairly close but in no way indicated there was a consensus,” said Richard Lee, one of the Gingrich supporters, who says he remains committed to his candidate.

The group had agreed that its minimum threshold to support a candidate was a three-quarters vote. However, the balloting on the first round was far closer than that, with Santorum receiving 57 votes; Gingrich, 48; Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 13; former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, 3; and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, 1.

In the second round, in which participants chose between the top two finishers on the first ballot, Santorum received 70 votes to Gingrich’s 49.

It was not until the third ballot, after some of Gingrich’s supporters left, that Santorum cleared the three-quarters threshold, receiving 85 votes, to Gingrich’s 29.

“From the outset, the stated goal of the meeting was to attempt to arrive at a consensus or a clear majority of support for a single conservative candidate. That goal was achieved,” Perkins said in a statement after the vote.

However, all the participants had been bound by an agreement not to speak for 24 hours.

“Being under a 24-hour promise of silence, I guess the only voice was the voice that was heard,” Lee said, referring to Perkins’s announcement.

Another Gingrich supporter, Jim Garlow, pastor of a San Diego megachurch, agreed: “There was never a consensus. All the people I know of who came supporting Newt left supporting Newt.”

Garlow described himself as having been “shocked” at the subsequent announcement.

“It wasn’t a consensus and it wasn’t an endorsement,” added former representative J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), who was also at the session and also expressed concern at how the outcome was being portrayed.

The continuing division calls into question how successful the effort will be at rallying social conservatives around a single alternative to Romney.

UPDATE, 6 P.M.: In an interview late Monday, Perkins, who is head of the Family Research Council, noted that only five fewer people voted on the third ballot than had on the second, which suggests that the departure of Gingrich’s allies did not significantly alter the outcome. (That five-vote difference would have kept Santorum from reaching the three-quarters threshold, however.)

He added that organizers should not have characterized the vote Saturday as “a consensus.” He said they had corrected their official statement to describe it as “a supermajority.”

Perkins also said the action Saturday did not constitute an endorsement by the group.

“It’s not orchestrated,” Perkins said. “It’s more organic from this point. . . . It can make a difference.”

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