Divided Religious Right Leaders may ask Presidential Candidates to Withdraw With Religious Right leaders set to meet in Texas about the GOP presidential primary, divisions within the movement may hinder efforts to put on a united front. Just as in 2008, when many social conservatives were divided and John McCain was able to win the Republican nomination, it looks like discord and delay will doom any chance that this meeting will be a game-changer.
Elizabeth Dias of TIME reports that Don Wildmon, the founder of the American Family Association who was an early supporter of Rick Perry but has since endorsed Newt Gingrich, told invited guests that they must be prepared to switch which candidate they support so as not to “not divide our strength.” Dias also reports that there “is a rumor among several invitees that the leaders may ask a candidate to withdraw” from the race:
Some 125 evangelical leaders and their spouses will gather this weekend at a Texas ranch to discuss the latest iteration of Operation What To Do About Mitt Romney. While organizers say it is not a meeting to stop the GOP front runner, the invitation is urgent: “This coming election could prove to be the most critical of our lifetime,” it reads. The real kicker: Event sponsor and former American Family Association chairman Don Wildmon has asked invitees if they would be “be willing to compromise and change your choice to one that the body as a whole supports in order to not divide our strength,” according to someone who has received the invitation. The implication? Time’s running out to anoint a consensus candidate for social conservatives.
Getting all the members of this group, let alone the voters of South Carolina, behind this proposition in the middle of January will likely require an act of God. Evangelical votes and donations are already splintered between Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. (Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, despite their second and third place finishes in New Hampshire, will not be under consideration at the ranch outside Houston this weekend.) There is a rumor among several invitees that the leaders may ask a candidate to withdraw, but entrenched loyalties will make it difficult to settle on one or possibly two contenders to take to the fall. Wildmon financed Perry’s “Response” prayer rally this summer, and event organizer Gary Bauer, a former Family Research Council president and a U.S.-presidential hopeful in 2000, endorsed Santorum at a South Carolina campaign event this past Sunday.
Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times found that Religious Right leaders are trying to make sure that they don’t come across as hostile to Mitt Romney as he inches closer to winning the nomination, noting that Romney’s evangelical supporters will be present:
Gary L. Bauer, president of American Values and one of the organizers, said Tuesday in an interview, “We’re not forming some alliance to stop somebody else that’s competing for the nomination,” adding, “the only person in that room the people want to stop is Barack Obama from having a second term.”
Mr. Bauer, it happens, will be supporting Mr. Santorum, whom he endorsed and campaigned with last week. But Mr. Bauer said the meeting would include advocates “for all of the candidates, including Romney.” Mr. Romney’s advocates are expected to be working the room aggressively.
For some insider knowledge, AFA spokesman and Perry-cheerleader Bryan Fischer urged his allies to all rally around the Texas governor despite his extraordinarily low place in the polls and beyond-terrible debate performances:
The only alternative to this scenario is if social conservatives are able to rally around Rick Perry. Newt Gingrich is fatally flawed and bleeding from too many self-inflicted wounds, including morphing into Michael Moore in his attacks on free enterprise. Rick Santorum, despite his unapologetic and vigorous social conservatism, does not have the infrastructure, the organization, or the money to run a nationwide campaign. He will not even be on the ballot in four or five states.
Only Rick Perry combines effective executive experience, a proven record of economic vitality, a consistently conservative set of social values, and the structure and fund-raising capacity to defeat Romney in the primary and Obama in the general. He or Santorum could blunt some of the Ron Paul mania and keep many conservatives from defecting to Paul. But Perry finished fifth in Iowa, was barely a blip in New Hampshire, and is polling at five percent in South Carolina.