Gingrich, Santorum, Perry jockey to unite conservatives and stop Romney

January 15, 2012

Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry jockeyed Sunday to unite conservatives around their candidacies, but none said he was willing to step aside as two prominent Republicans predicted that Mitt Romney could clinch the GOP presidential nomination with a third straight win in Saturday’s South Carolina primary.

“If we consolidate conservatives, we could beat Romney by a big margin,” Gingrich, a former House speaker, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Of Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, he added: “I think the only way that a Massachusetts moderate can get through South Carolina is if the vote is split.”

But that is precisely what is happening in South Carolina, with less than a week until Republicans here head to the polls. The four candidates, along with Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., are planning to campaign heavily before the first-in-the-South primary, including nationally televised debates Monday night on Fox News and Thursday night on CNN.

Two unaligned South Carolina Republicans, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham and Rep. Tim Scott, said Sunday that if Romney goes 3 for 0 in Saturday’s primary, the nominating contest effectively will be over.

“If for some reason he is not derailed here and Mitt Romney wins South Carolina — no one has ever won all three — I think it should be over . . . and I hope the party would rally around him,” Graham said on “Meet the Press.”

Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, said that the only way to stop Romney’s march may be for the race to quickly narrow to two candidates.

“We need to get this eventually down to a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Once this field narrows, when we get it down to a two-person race, we have an excellent opportunity to win this race.”

But, he added: “I’m not going to tell anybody to get in or out of the race. I think that’s their decision to make.”

Santorum tried to use the vote by more than 100 Christian conservative leaders at a meeting Saturday in Texas as a rallying cry to consolidate South Carolina conservatives around his candidacy.

“They know that I’m the consistent conservative,” he said. “I’m someone who’s willing to stand up for all of the issues . . . and they saw me as the one best chance of winning.”

But other candidates countered. Gingrich said reports of the Texas gathering “highly exaggerated” the evangelical leaders’ support for Santorum. “I have very strong support from Christian conservatives and social conservatives, and that support continues,” he said. “The one consensus was that virtually no one was for Mitt Romney, but in fact there was a very strong Santorum group and there was a very strong Gingrich group at that particular meeting,, and the Gingrich folks are still very much for me. . . . .”

Perry, who did not make it past the first ballot at the Texas meeting, laid claim to a reservoir of support among Christian conservatives in South Carolina.

“When you look at the record, I’m the most consistent — both social and fiscal conservative — in this race,” Perry said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The Texas governor, who is languishing in the polls but hopes for a revival here, said he plans to campaign in Florida, which will hold its primary on Jan. 31, regardless of his finish in South Carolina.

Paul picked up the endorsement Sunday of state Sen. Tom Davis, a leading fiscal conservative in the legislature and a close ally of former governor Mark Sanford. Romney, who leads the polls here, announced Sunday that he has the support of Jay Sekulow and his son, Jordan, both prominent evangelicals at the American Center for Law and Justice.

One of Romney’s top surrogates, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), acknowledged that the move by some social conservative leaders to rally around Santorum “is a hit.”

“I think it’s going to have some effect,” McCain, the Republican Party’s 2008 presidential nominee, said on CNN. “But a lot of voters have already made up their mind, either rightly or wrongly. Every poll shows that they believe that Mitt Romney is the most electable, and also, the economy is the dominating issue.”

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