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Social conservatives may rally around Santorum before Florida — but could that be too late?

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Could Rick Santorum face the same problem that Mike Huckabee faced in 2008?

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R). (Chris Carlson — Associated Press)

The former Pennsylvania senator’s GOP presidential bid has been gaining traction among social conservatives ever since his second-place showing in Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses.

But whether he’ll be able to gain enough support among them — and quickly enough — to present himself as a viable alternative to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) remains an open question.

In an interview Friday with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Richard Land, a prominent Christian conservative and president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said that social conservative leaders are increasingly enthusiastic about Santorum — but they’re worried that his candidacy could face the same fate as Huckabee’s 2008 bid, which faltered in South Carolina as social conservatives splintered between the former Arkansas governor and former senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), allowing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to eke out a win.

“We don’t want to make the same mistake this time that we made with Huckabee in 2008,” Land said. “People didn’t rally around Huckabee as the social conservative alternative because they didn’t think he could win until it was too late, and McCain had the nomination sewed up.”

He noted that if one combined the vote totals of Santorum, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), “you would’ve out-voted Romney two-to-one in Iowa.”

“But because of the division among the conservative candidates, there is real concern that Romney will win without having to face one concentrated effort of a conservative challenger,” he said.

That would suggest that social conservatives are planning to rally — and quickly — around Santorum, as South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary approaches. But Land told Mitchell that’s not necessarily the case.

“Santorum has to do the convincing,” Land said, noting that social conservative leaders wouldn’t necessarily try to push Gingrich out of the race before South Carolina. “(Santorum) did a lot of convincing in Iowa — he’s got an Iowa bump out of Iowa and New Hampshire and in South Carolina. He’s raising money. He’s surging.”

Land added: “The question is, what’s going to happen in New Hampshire, and then what’s going to happen in South Carolina? If, in South Carolina, Santorum out-performs Gingrich and out-performs Perry, then I would think social conservative leaders could make the case (for Gingrich to drop out).”

Santorum is now running neck-and-neck with Gingrich in South Carolina; a CNN/TIME/Opinion Research poll released Friday shows him taking 19 percent to Gingrich’s 18 percent. Romney’s support stands at 37 percent. The poll’s margin of error is 4.5 percentage points.

The survey shows a contest that is in considerable flux, however. Early last month, Gingrich was riding high in South Carolina with 43 percent to Romney’s 20 percent, while Santorum was only a blip at four percent.

That would suggest that voters are continuing to make up their minds — and that a move by leaders to sway Gingrich or Perry voters in Santorum’s direction could make the difference. If one tallies the percentages for Santorum, Perry and Gingrich in the latest CNN poll, the total is 42 percent — five percentage points higher than Romney’s current share in the survey.

In 2008, Huckabee remained in the contest up until McCain clinched the nomination — and judging from his recent fundraising success, Santorum could well do the same this time, lifting his national name ID in the process.

But if he is to be a viable competitor for the GOP nod, Santorum will likely have to do what Huckabee did not do four years ago — convince Palmetto State’s social conservatives that he is the best choice in the field.

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