Santorum Strikes A Chord With Evangelicals

More than 150 conservative Christian leaders spent the weekend in Texas meeting about the presidential race and the possibility of coalescing around one Republican candidate. In the end, they rallied for Rick Santorum. Host Rachel Martin talks to Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council about the decision.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has a boost going into the last week of campaigning in South Carolina. He won the endorsement of a group of conservative Christian leaders yesterday. We'll speak with one of those leaders in a moment. But first, all of the candidates except for Ron Paul met in Charleston yesterday. Fox News host and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee moderated a forum. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, it wasn't exactly a debate.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In fact, this was sort of the opposite of a debate. The candidates never actually shared the stage. They were explicitly prohibited from attacking or even mentioning each other. Still, most found ways to get in a jab without naming their rivals. The vast majority of the jabs were aimed at front-runner Mitt Romney. One member of the audience asked Jon Huntsman about his position on abortion.

JON HUNTSMAN: I am very clear on my pro-life philosophy. I have always been pro-life, and I always will be.

SHAPIRO: Romney supported abortion rights before he changed his position. Rick Santorum also tried to contrast himself with the stereotype of Romney as a political opportunist who blows in the wind.

RICK SANTORUM: Not everybody agrees with everything you believe in, but what they want to know is that you believe what you believe. And folks trusted me that I would stand up and in fact do what I said and that I was doing it for the right reason.

SHAPIRO: Newt Gingrich did not even bother with the oblique attacks. He went after the former Massachusetts governor by name, continuing the argument he has pursued for the past week, that Romney made a fortune at the investment company Bain Capital by closing companies and laying people off.

NEWT GINGRICH: Governor Romney ran saying he created 100,000 jobs in the private sector, and let me just say...

JOHN HUCKABEE: Mr. Speaker, we've said we will not allow any comment of the other candidates.

GINGRICH: Well, I'm just trying to answer his question.

SHAPIRO: Having been scolded by the host and booed by the audience, Gingrich joined the other candidates in going after Romney without naming him.

GINGRICH: To ask questions about a particular company is not the same as attacking capitalism, and I don't see how you can expect us to have a presidential campaign in which an entire sector is avoided. And I guarantee you if we Republicans avoid it, our nominee in the fall is not going to find that Obama avoids it at all.

SHAPIRO: All week long, Rick Perry joined in the Romney attacks on the campaign trail. But last night, he was the only one who did not go down that path, talking instead about his record as Texas governor. Mitt Romney is the target because he is the man to beat in this race. He won Iowa and New Hampshire. Now, South Carolina could be his rivals' last best chance to unseat him. Polls show him ahead of the pack one week before the primary. But South Carolina voters still have concerns about his conservative authenticity. One man asked Romney, how will you convince us that you and Obama aren't just two sides of the same coin? Another woman said:

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can you convince me, as a true conservative, why we should vote for you, a moderate Republican, against any of the other candidates? Will you flip-flop if you are elected?

SHAPIRO: Romney tried once more to prove his conservative mettle. He said he governed Massachusetts as a conservative. And in answer to another question, he said he'll fight for religious expression.

MITT ROMNEY: I will not proceed down the path that I think you're seeing across this country, which is to try to secularize America. I think we ought to have manger scenes at Christmastime, and menorahs representing other faiths. Look, we are a believing people.

SHAPIRO: So far, Romney has benefited from the failure of his opponents to coalesce behind any one alternative. As the forum was taping yesterday, conservative Christian leaders decided to throw their weight behind Rick Santorum. Now, it remains to be seen whether the anti-Romney voters will fall in line behind those leaders. Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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