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Christian Right Ordains Santorum to Block Romney, Prays for a New Candidate | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Christian Right Ordains Santorum to Block Romney, Prays for a New Candidate

Rick Santorum is not going to be the president of the United States.

He is not going to be the Republican nominee for president.

He may not even win a primary.

Santorum could not beat Mitt Romney in the Iowa Republican caucuses. And no one in Iowa liked Mitt Romney.

Santorum could not beat Newt Gingrich for fourth place in New Hampshire’s Republican primary. And Newt Gingrich was not campaigning, he was throwing a tantrum.

Santorum is dueling with Ron Paul for third place in the South Carolina polls. Both are behind Newt Gingrich and the dreaded Romney -- whose unacceptability is being confirmed by news that the closest thing the GOP race had to a moderate, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, will on Monday exit the competition and endorse the eternally-suspect frontrunner.

So why did the crême de la Christian right just decide to throw the movement’s muscle behind the Santorum “juggernaut”?

Because they’re smart.

Frustrated social conservative leaders flew into Texas Saturday to try and figure out what they were going to do about a presidential race that had made them seem like they are either irrelevant or the gang that couldn’t shoot straight—or both.

While the candidates who appealed most aggressively to the Christian right—Santorum, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann—took 40 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses, Romney took advantage of the split and finished eight votes ahead of Santorum.

Then came Iowa, where an insufficiently conservative Mormon, a libertarian, an even more insufficiently conservative Mormon and a fellow who is on wife number three beat Santorum.

The 2012 campaign season has been an disaster for the movement that—before the Koch Brothers and their pals faked up a Tea Party movement—formed the fearsome and feared grassroots of the Grand Old Party.

So 150 Christian rightists—including Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Gary Bauer of a comically unsuccessful presidential race and the real political powerhouse in the room, former Focus on the Family head James Dobson—gathered at the Brenham, Texas, ranch of Paul Pressler. (Pressler, a former Texas appellate court judge, was a leader in the fight to politicize the Southern Baptist Convention and has since become a key player in Christian broadcasting circles.)

The stated purpose of the session was to choose a candidate that the Christian right could back.

The unstated purpose was to clean up the mess that most of the same political players made of things when they bet last summer on Rick Perry to win.

Perry has not even placed or shown.

So back to the drawing board—this time with a bet on Santorum, who won the group’s endorsement by a 114-to-85 vote over Gingrich.

But Christian rightists have wised up.

Despite kind words thrown Santorum’s way, they’re not really betting on the defeated former senator from Pennsylvania to win. (If anything, the significant vote for Gingrich confirms they are not even sure that the former senator from Pennsylvania is the right horse.)

Social conservatives are betting on Santorum in hopes of keeping the 2012 Republican presidential race confused enough to create an opening for another option.

This group does not like Mitt Romney, who was never under consideration by the pastors and pols who gathered in Texas. (“It was already known that when folks arrived here that Romney was not the candidate,” explained Perkins, who emerged as the spokesman for those attending the session.) The Christian right has always distrusted Romney, not so much because of his Mormon religion -- although that could be a factor with some -- but because of his past support for abortion rights and his ongoing sympathy for gay rights. The planned endorsement of Romney by Huntsman only confirms their suspicions. Huntsman was in many ways just as conservative as the rest of the candidates, but he eschewed "faith-and-family" themes and made it clear from the start that he was not going to embrace the "pledge" politics of the right on economic and social issues.

Still, the sense that Romney might be pulling things together will only increase the agitation among social conservatives who worry that the candidates who are echoing their themes might again splinter the anti-Romney vote in South Carolina.

While some of prominent players on the religious right, like Bauer, are reasonably enthusiastic about Santorum, many others simply want to trip up Romney. To that end, Dobson and others will now urge a coalescing around Santorum in South Carolina, as happened in the latter stages of the Iowa caucus race.

A strong showing for Santorum in South Carolina -- or a credible showing in conjunction with a Gingrich win -- would slow Romney’s momentum.

That could drag the race out long enough to get past the Florida primary at the end of January and push this race toward the Super Tuesday primaries in March.

Along the way, Ron Paul could continue to pile up delegates—especially in caucus states such as Nevada. And the prospect of a wide-open convention, where no candidate has a majority of delegates, would begin to loom larger.

That is where things could get interesting for the social conservatives. They quietly talk about “a new conservative standard-bearer” stepping up, gathering together delegates from the various candidates and emerging as the great right hope.

The prospect of the Republican race going all the way to the convention, which might then turn to a candidate who did not contest the primaries, are always slim. The old days of party bosses and smoke-filled rooms are long gone, and both parties have structured things to favor rapid and firm settlements of their nominations by the primaries. But the dynamics of the 2012 contest are such that conservative commentator Michael Medved argues: “The idea of some surprise selection that could unite a divided and dispirited party remains a longshot but more plausible than at any time in the past 60 years.”

While most of those discussions are muted, veteran conservative operative Richard Viguerie has for weeks been talking up the idea of finding an “alternative” candidate.

After the Iowa caucus results confirmed that 75 percent of participants opposed Romney, even as social conservatives struggled to coalesce, Viguerie spoke of “the likelihood that the nomination will not be settled until the GOP Convention in Tampa.”

Viguerie argues that it’s not just Iowa. He says that most Republicans nationally are looking for that alternative.

“The vast majority of Republican primary voters want to vote for a principled, small government, constitutional conservative,” says Viguerie. “With 75 percent of the vote available, the door is now open to a new conservative standard bearer who can unite the party in the way Romney has failed to do.”

On this front, the Christian right might even find allies in the Republican establishment, and among the consultant class (led by Karl Rove) that runs the burgeoning network of Super PACS that will seek to elect the eventual GOP nominee. If Romney is seriously damaged by attacks from Gingrich, Perry and others, they, too, will need an alternative.

And it is not likely to be Santorum.

Who then? Actually, the list is long, although not necessarily consistent in character or quality. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint are on it. So, too, is former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a genuine favorite with social conservatives. And, of course, a certain Floridian named Jeb Bush.

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