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Santorum wins support of evangelical leaders at Texas meeting

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Former senator Rick Santorum has emerged as the choice of more than 150 evangelical leaders who huddled at a Texas ranch Friday night to debate their preferred candidate in the GOP presidential race.

Former senator Rick Santorum. (Steve Pope/Getty Images)

The move represents an eleventh-hour effort by social conservatives one week out from the crucial South Carolina primary to unify around a single candidate and blunt the momentum of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whom many evangelicals consider insufficiently conservative.

But in a sign that the effort may be too little too late, the leaders did not discuss any plans to urge former House speaker Newt Gingrich or Texas Gov. Rick Perry to drop out of the White House race, according to one participant — meaning that social conservatives could well split their support this year, just as they did during the 2008 GOP presidential primary.

“That was not even a part of the discussion,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told reporters Saturday afternoon when asked whether participants discussed any effort to push Gingrich or Perry from the GOP contest.

All six Republican presidential hopefuls — with the exception of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman — sent representatives to the Texas meeting, Perkins said. After a “very cordial but passionate” discussion and three rounds of balloting, Santorum had won the support of more than two-thirds of the leaders present at the meeting just outside Houston.

“I will have to admit that what I did not think was possible appears to be possible,” Perkins said, adding that “there is clearly a unified group here.”

After Romney’s back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this month, there has been an increasing sense of urgency among social conservatives about rallying behind a single candidate and avoiding the outcome of the 2008 race. In that contest, South Carolina evangelicals split their support between former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Fred Thompson, allowing Sen. John McCain to eke out a win in the Palmetto State and go on to win the nomination.

“That was the whole backdrop to this meeting,” Perkins said when asked whether the 2008 race loomed large in the leaders’ decision to meet about the current White House race.

He noted that “it’s not news that there’s not strong support among conservatives for Mitt Romney,” but emphasized that the event “was not a ‘bash Mitt Romney’” meeting and was focused more on “what conservative candidates had to offer.”

Asked whether there was any concern among activists that the move could come too late in the nominating process, Perkins said that the opposite was the case.

“There was not a fear that this is too late; there was a sense that this could be exactly the right time,” he said, noting that evangelicals are a key voting bloc in South Carolina.

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