Is social conservatives’ embrace of Santorum too late?

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent January 14, 2012

After months of hand-wringing, social conservative leaders finally gave collective voice Saturday to their unhappiness that Mitt Romney might be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. If not quite a stop-Romney movement, the decision to try to rally support for Rick Santorum represents an open expression of their frustrations.

Conservatives opposed to Romney have just six days to slow his march toward victory. If the former Massachusetts governor wins the South Carolina primary Saturday, his opponents will have virtually no way to deny him the nomination. He could still become the nominee even if he loses Saturday, but a defeat would raise the stakes considerably in Florida, which votes Jan. 31.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

It’s possible that the decision to embrace Santorum, announced by social conservative leaders Saturday, may have come too late to be truly effective. Because of that, there are a host of questions about the impact of the consensus that emerged around the former Pennsylvania senator’s candidacy during a meeting in Texas this weekend.

Will the groups represented at the gathering take material steps to help Santorum? Will Santorum’s campaign see an infusion of money, volunteers and grass-roots activity?

How will the other conservatives who have been trying to become the Romney alternative — former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — respond? Will they try to go after Santorum, even as they work to deny Romney a victory? How will those in the movement who backed either Perry or Gingrich respond?

Finally, will this have any impact on Ron Paul, a candidate with a real following and the wherewithal to keep going, despite the fact that many in the party want to ignore him?

Santorum could have used this new support weeks ago, as he was beginning his rise in Iowa and before Romney developed a head of steam. Had it come then, he probably would have won the Iowa caucuses, possibly changing the complexion of the race. He might have been able to pour more money into South Carolina earlier and buttress against what always was likely to be a poor showing in New Hampshire. Coming the weekend before the most crucial contest so far in the GOP nomination battle, the embrace of Santorum is helpful but at this point far from a decisive boost.

More than anything, the rebellion by social conservative leaders speaks to the mismatch between Romney and the base of the party he seeks to lead. Throughout this campaign, the lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy among the party’s conservative base has been a powerful undercurrent but little more than that.

Romney is not the ideal candidate for social and religious conservatives — or for the new force within the party, the tea party movement. That’s hardly news, however. Saturday’s announcement in Texas adds to tensions between the party establishment, to the extent it exists, and its grass-roots conservative activists.

Romney’s 2008 candidacy foundered on questions of whether he was authentically conservative and whether his changes in position on abortion and other issues were genuine or just politically motivated. He claims now that he campaigned that year as one of the conservative alternatives to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), but the real conservative challenger in that race was former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told reporters in a conference call after the Texas meeting that some social conservative leaders regretted their failure to coalesce around Huckabee four years ago. McCain won the South Carolina primary in 2008 because the opposition was split. That victory served as the springboard to his eventual nomination. The vote in Texas reflects in part a desire among social conservative leaders not to emerge from this contest with similar regrets about not trying to stop Romney. But was it more than that?

A true stop-Romney movement requires money, organizational muscle and commitment, not just a collective expression of disapproval. South Carolina could provide fertile ground for such efforts. According to exit polls, nearly three in five voters in the Palmetto State primary four years ago identified themselves as evangelical Christians. Santorum easily won the evangelical vote in Iowa, but Romney won a plurality of those voters in New Hampshire.

The other reality is that the influence of religious and social conservatives within the Republican coalition is less today than it was a decade ago. And in this campaign, many are voting as much on economic issues as on social issues. With their prestige on the line, social conservative leaders must try to show they are not a weakened part of the Republican coalition. They risk embarrassment if Santorum doesn’t do well.

Romney’s path to the nomination has been eased by the absence of strong opposition. None of those aspiring to become the Romney alternative has measured up when the moment required it. Gingrich thought he might be the nominee, but he has finished back in the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire. Perry, who would have been the first choice of many of those who met in Texas this weekend, has been a far worse candidate. Santorum had a good showing in Iowa but not in New Hampshire. Other than Romney, only Paul has been a consistent performer.

Gingrich and Perry see South Carolina as a chance for redemption — as well as a possible end of the line for their candidacies. Given what Gingrich and Perry have gone through, they aren’t likely to yield to the views of a group of people meeting in Texas. So the question is: To whom will the voters listen over the next six days?

Social and religious conservatives appear to be united on two things in this campaign: their deep desire to defeat President Obama in November and their disenchantment with the candidate who might have the best chance of doing so, Romney. But in the end, they may be forced to acquiesce once again.

If Romney wins the nomination, party leaders are counting on them to support his candidacy and work enthusiastically to beat Obama. That support is still likely to materialize, though Romney may never enjoy the passionate affection of the base. The decision in Texas means that reconciliation may take longer than it would have and come at a higher price.

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