Many came into the meeting committed to other candidates, especially former Speaker Newt Gingrich. All of the candidates, except former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, sent surrogates to make a case for support.
But in the end, evangelical leaders want to use whatever clout they have to help a strong conservative advance in South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary, upsetting frontrunner Mitt Romney, who is viewed as too moderate – or too Mormon.
“There was a desire to see a true conservative emerge to secure the nomination, and the overwhelming belief was that a true conservative has the best chance of winning a direct election against Barack Obama,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, in a conference call with reporters after the Saturday morning vote.
“What’s the point if we do not get a true conservative?” he added.
But with so much at stake in the 2012 vote, it's not clear that either the GOP candidates or the voters are likely to defer to an 85-to-25 vote in a back room in Houston.
“What we are seeing today is nothing like the influence we saw in the 1980s and ‘90s,” says Robert Jones, who heads the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington. “The days of kingmakers in a small room deciding the GOP nominee are over.”
South Carolina looms large for Christian conservatives, who see their failure to unite around a single candidate in 2008 – then, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee or former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee – as swinging the GOP nomination to Sen. John McCain, a moderate on social issues. Governor Romney is currently leading in South Carolina polls, followed by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Gingrich, and Santorum.
“There is hope and expectation that, with the constituencies represented here, it will have an impact on South Carolina,” said Mr. Perkins. Christian conservatives account for 60 percent of the likely GOP primary vote in South Carolina. “I was amazed at the unity that was here.”
At issue is how to winnow the GOP primary field, before it’s too late to stop frontrunner Romney, who is viewed as not consistent on issues such as abortion rights, which he formerly supported. There are too many social conservative candidates in the race, and they are dividing the social conservative vote, they say.
The aim of Saturday’s meeting is to find out whether there is a viable alternative to Romney, says Richard Land, president of the ethics and religious liberty committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, in an interview on C-Span’s Newsmakers on Friday, to be aired Jan. 15.
“Most social conservatives find Romney a more attractive candidate than they did John McCain,” he said. “This isn’t anti-Romney, but wouldn’t it be nice to find out if a social conservative is viable both in the primary and the general election?”
However, if polls show that Romney continues to be more viable in the general election campaign than a conservative alternative, than Romney will be the GOP nominee, he added. “Do not underestimate Barack Obama’s unique ability to unite social conservatives and others around whomever he is running against in a general election.”