CUMMING, Ga. — The cavernous sanctuary at First Redeemer Church was packed on a recent Sunday when presidential hopeful Rick Santorum took the stage to declare religious freedom in jeopardy.
A week later, church members stood to applaud again when Newt Gingrich paid a visit, speaking of an assault by the “secular left” on people of faith.
Like evangelicals across the country, the 5,000 members of this politically active church are being courted as a critical bloc as the candidates head into Super Tuesday next week. In several of the 10 states casting ballots Tuesday, evangelicals could constitute a majority of voters.
And for the first time in years, the white conservative Christian community does not have an obvious candidate from its own ranks — no born-again Protestant like Mike Huckabee or George W. Bush to coalesce behind in the primaries. While evangelical support for Santorum has grown in recent weeks, bolstering his standing against Mitt Romney, the community is still considered largely up for grabs.
That has brought a flurry of attention to First Redeemer, where pastor Richard Lee advises his members to vote for “those who will most represent us as believers.”
Four years ago, evangelicals made up more than 60 percent of Republican primary voters in Georgia, exit polls showed. In Tennessee and Oklahoma, two other Super Tuesday states, more than seven out of 10 primary voters were evangelicals.
Now, with polls showing that Tuesday’s contests could end with a mix of winners, evangelical support is seen as even more crucial. The candidates are openly competing for them — Romney, Gingrich and Santorum will appear Saturday on a nationally televised forum from Ohio with Huckabee. The conversation will focus on jobs, but each candidate is hoping for a nod of approval from the former Arkansas governor, whose opinions carry weight with conservative Christian voters.
None of the candidates are willing to cede the evangelical vote, and each has devised a strategy.
The Ron Paul campaign is sending packets to megachurch leaders and televangelists that include a personal letter from the congressman, a statement outlining his opposition to abortion rights and DVDs of his speeches before conservative Christian groups, according to senior Paul adviser Doug Wead.
Gingrich, who represented Georgia in Congress for two decades, has made evangelical churches regular stops along the campaign trail. He speaks often about religious freedom and his relationship with God.
“I don’t come here as a saint,” he said at First Redeemer last month. “I come here as a citizen who has had a life that at times has fallen short of the glory of God who has had to seek God’s forgiveness and had to seek reconciliation.”
Santorum, a conservative Catholic who has drawn endorsements from some old-line evangelical leaders, makes frequent references to his faith, his support for teaching creationism in public schools and the home-schooling of his own children. But other than his appearance at First Redeemer, he has been doing little direct outreach to churches.
“The churchgoing population is pretty much ours anyway,” said Kathy Hildebrand, the Georgia field director for Santorum, who said the campaign is working to reach the broader Republican electorate.
Romney has relied on Mark DeMoss, a Southern Baptist businessman serving as an unpaid senior adviser, to connect him with conservative Christians.
DeMoss, who owns a public relations firm representing top evangelical leaders and conservative Christian causes, served as Romney’s spokesman at a January gathering of 150 evangelical leaders outside Houston. There, he said, he warned against “anti-Mormon bigotry” and argued that shared evangelical values are more important in a candidate than shared theology.
“While I’m not interested in promoting Mormon theology, the country could benefit from Mormon values,” DeMoss said in an interview.
The January meeting was held in hopes of uniting social conservatives behind a candidate and blunting the momentum of Romney, viewed by many evangelicals as insufficiently conservative. But despite an up-or-down vote that went to Santorum at the gathering, there was little true consensus.
And in the primary contests so far, evangelical voters have been as fluid as other Republicans. In the Iowa caucuses in January, nearly one third of self-described born-again evangelicals backed Santorum. But in South Carolina, Gingrich drew the highest share — 44 percent.
According to a report last month by the Pew Research Center, four in 10 white evangelical voters nationwide support Santorum, double the number that backed him in January. Romney has the support of 23 percent, Gingrich has 20 percent and Paul 6 percent.
First Redeemer’s Lee, who was among the evangelical leaders trying to find a consensus candidate in January, has warned his church members that this is the most important campaign of their lifetimes. “There is a common spirit of concern that we are losing America,” he said.
Many of his members cite their concern about President Obama’s policies and argue that he is taking away religious freedom, pointing to a recent administration policy requiring religious institutions to provide employee insurance covering contraceptives.
Pat Hill, a retired secretary, said she has taken Lee’s words to heart. After Gingrich and Santorum spoke at First Redeemer, Hill, 58, said she found herself backing Santorum. “He sealed the deal,” she said, adding that she hoped Gingrich would end up in a Republican Cabinet.
If Romney wins the nomination, she said, she will vote for him, although she is concerned about the health-care plan he passed in Massachusetts and the fact that he once supported abortion rights.
“There’s no perfect candidate,” she said.
Support for the candidates runs the gamut among First Redeemer members, a reminder that, for the first time anyone can remember, Republican evangelicals feel they do not have a candidate who is one of their own.
In prior elections, Republicans have nominated white male Protestants. The only one left in this race is Paul, who was raised Lutheran and attends a Baptist church in Texas, but Lee said he holds positions out of step with most conservative evangelicals.
Member Dennis Brown, a retired military man, said he is backing Gingrich. “He has the experience and ability to get things done,” he said. “The baggage, I don’t care about it.”
Choir member John Arant said he cast an early ballot for Romney.
“There is a huge bloc in the middle that might go for a Romney,” he said. “We need a nominee who can win.”
Hill’s husband, Lanny, said he likes Santorum.
“He doesn’t beat around the bush,” said Lanny, 69. “He seems to be an honest fellow. He’s got a nice family. That’s impressive.”
Lee, who is author of “The American Patriot’s Bible” and has long been a politically active pastor, has been looking for a candidate to step into the gap. He said he will not endorse a candidate in the primary, though he has spoken highly of Santorum and Gingrich.
“Newt and Santorum, although they are Catholics, they stand for the principles that evangelicals identify with more than some of the others,” Lee said in an interview. “They openly, without hesitation, will talk about the value of their Judeo-Christian belief and these issues, which are so important.”
Evangelicals might find some aspects of Mormon theology “strange,” Lee said, though he vowed to support Romney if he wins the nomination. Lee said that he has met the former governor four or five times and that Romney “has told me personally that he is a Christian.”
Polling analyst Scott Clement and polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.