Santorum Hopes Evangelical Backing Will Help In S.C.

GOP presidential candidate over the weekend received the endorsement of more than 100 evangelical leaders meeting in Texas. The group urged Christian conservatives to unite behind Santorum as the best candidate to beat Romney, who they see as far too moderate.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We find out soon if evangelical leaders can still deliver votes in South Carolina. After struggling for months to unite behind a candidate, they met over the weekend and endorsed former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

INSKEEP: Let's recall: Santorum nearly won Iowa, fell far behind in New Hampshire, and is now making his case to conservative voters in South Carolina. Evangelicals hope Santorum will emerge as a strong alternative to Mitt Romney. Some conservatives do not trust Romney, though he is moving rapidly toward the GOP nomination.

NPR's Don Gonyea has been following Santorum's campaign.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Santorum's Sunday would include a prayer breakfast in Myrtle Beach and a town hall in the town of Florence. But first, thanks to the stamp of approval he got from prominent evangelicals, it was an appearance on "Fox News Sunday," where he spoke of the endorsement with a mix of pride, gratitude and validation.

RICK SANTORUM: So we feel very, very good that, with their support, we're going to get a network of grassroots leaders here, lining up behind us and giving us that surge that we need coming down to this last week.

GONYEA: Santorum got just such a surge in Iowa. That one was a product of both hard work and a collapse in the polls by former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich. In South Carolina, polls show Santorum well behind both Romney and Gingrich, and essentially tied with Congressman Ron Paul. But evangelicals make up 60 percent of the likely GOP primary voters in the state, so he sees an opening.

Yesterday afternoon at a restaurant in Florence, Santorum gave it the hard sell. He argued that this election is not all about the economy and the government's fiscal health, as it often portrayed.

SANTORUM: If all you think we need to do to get this economy going and to get this country on the right track, is to cut government and reduce taxes, you don't understand America. America is a moral enterprise, not an economic enterprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: Those words were aimed directly at Mitt Romney, who's running as a businessman with firsthand knowledge of how the economy works.

The audience at the Santorum event included hardcore supporters and some new converts. There were also undecided voters, many looking for someone to vote for other than Mitt Romney.

In the back of the room were husband and wife Jay and Susan Merrifield. He's leaning toward Santorum, over Romney. She just yesterday decided to vote for Santorum - over her second choice, Texas Governor Rick Perry. I asked them both if they think the endorsement from evangelical leaders will have much impact in South Carolina.

JAY MERRIFIELD: No, not really. I'm surprised they didn't pick Perry, really.

SUSAN MERRIFIELD: It makes me happy though, 'cause now I'm thinking maybe Focus on the Family and some those other shows will talk about him on the radio. And more people will hear while they driving and hear Santorum's message.

GONYEA: The potential for Santorum to do well in South Carolina has made him a target of attacks ads, this one paid for by a Super PAC that supports Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Santorum voted to raise the debt limit five times, increasing spending and debt by $3 trillion. And he even voted to let convicted felons vote.

GONYEA: In Florence, Santorum called that ad lie, and the kind of tactic used by a candidate who can't run on his own credentials as a conservative.

But Susan Merrifield, the new Santorum supporter, said she's seen a lot worse in a state known for its hardball politics.

S. MERRIFIELD: I didn't consider it, you know, real bad. I just consider it, well, that's politics and they're going to do it.

GONYEA: Santorum's opponents have plenty of incentive to derail his drive to consolidate the sizeable and critical South Carolina evangelical vote. So he'd better be prepared for even more such attacks.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Myrtle Beach.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: