Posted at 11:24 PM ET, 02/19/2012

Santorum rallies thousands at Georgia megachurch

CUMMING, Ga. — Rick Santorum isn’t a native son of Georgia. He’s not a Southern Baptist. But on Sunday night, an audience of thousands at the First Redeemer Church welcomed him as one of their own.

The GOP presidential contender and former senator from Pennsylvania came to this sprawling megachurch an hour north of Atlanta to make his pitch to voters on the home turf of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a rival, two weeks ahead of the Peach State’s Super Tuesday primary.

His visit came one day after Gingrich, who is struggling to sustain his flagging campaign, rallied supporters at South Forsyth High School three miles down the Peachtree Parkway.

And if the reception Santorum received here was any indication — he brought the crowd of more than 3,000 to its feet several times, and many attendees gushed about him afterward — Gingrich had better be on guard.

Santorum’s delivery at First Redeemer had the feel of a sermon, although his remarks hewed closely to his stump speech, with an emphasis on the link between economic and social issues.

“This election is about the big things,” he told the hushed audience as he roamed the church stage, speaking without notes. “Yeah, it’s about the economy. It’s about jobs. Don’t you think a government that is that oppressive and that controlling — imagine I talked to you about what it’s doing to families and individuals. Imagine what it’s doing to business. It’s doing the same thing.”

His biggest applause line came when he called on the attendees to defend the church and family from what he described as overreach by the Obama administration.

“The president is out there, his people are out there trying to wipe out anything between them and the individual, so when there’s a problem, they look to the government,” Santorum said. “And when that happens, America as we know it isn’t going to be America as we know it. We need to build those foundational institutions — of the church. And defend the church. Defend the family.”

He fielded friendly questions from about half a dozen audience members. One attendee asked about his foreign policy; another asked whether he supported the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline; and another asked him to convince young people that their participation in the 2012 election will make a difference.

“I’m not sure I’d be standing here if it wasn’t for 34 people in Iowa,” Santorum joked in response, a reference to his narrow victory over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the Hawkeye State’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

A man wearing a sweater vest stepped up to the microphone and thanked Santorum for coming to the event.

“Thank you for wearing a sweater vest,” responded Santorum, who has taken to wearing a suit in recent days but who on Sunday night donned his signature dark blue vest.

With 76 delegates at stake on March 6, Georgia is the biggest Super Tuesday prize. It’s also the fourth-largest state in the national GOP delegate race at large.

Gingrich, who represented the Sixth Congressional District for two decades, has made Georgia and other Southern states a key part of his push to reclaim momentum in the race. But some Georgians have turned against him, and many of those same conservative voters now appear to be flocking to Santorum — a development that could mean a close Santorum-Romney race.

Debbie Tibbetts, 48, a nursing student from Cummings, said she decided to support Santorum over the past two weeks and is now “absolutely” behind him.

“He believes in the founding principles of the country,” she said. “He’s a strong Christian. I believe that he’s not just another player in Washington who’s going to say one thing and do another when he gets there.”

Added her friend Amy Abney, 45, a homemaker from Cumming who is a member of First Redeemer: “And he speaks the truth.”

“Yeah,” Tibbetts said. “Speaks the truth.”

“This will be a county that votes for Santorum,” Abney said. “And Forsyth County is very Republican. I just think that everybody moves to Cumming for everything that he believes in.”

By  |  11:24 PM ET, 02/19/2012

 
Read what others are saying
     

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company