The religious right movement finds its man

Prominent religious right groups and leaders have known all along they don’t want to see Mitt Romney get the Republican presidential nomination. They have not, however, coalesced around an alternative — in fact, they haven’t even tried.

An “emergency” meeting in Texas yesterday sought to change this dynamic.

Evangelical leaders pursued a last-ditch effort on Saturday to exert influence in the Republican presidential primary race, voting to support the candidacy of Rick Santorum in hopes of undercutting Mitt Romney’s march to the nomination.

A week before the South Carolina primary, a group of more than 100 influential Christian conservatives gathered at a ranch here and voted overwhelmingly to rally behind Mr. Santorum. An organizer described the vote as an “unexpected supermajority,” a decision that was intended to help winnow the Republican field and consolidate the opposition to Mr. Romney.

The theological circumstances are fascinating, in and of themselves: these evangelicals were choosing between two Roman Catholics. It wasn’t that long ago when this would have been considered impossible, if not ridiculous.

Nevertheless, Santorum clearly needed the boost — he’s struggled badly since his strong showing in Iowa two weeks ago — and there can be little doubt that the right-wing organizations represented at yesterday’s meeting represent a fairly significant number of social conservative Republican voters. This is especially true of South Carolina, where the religious right remains a potent GOP force.

What the theocratic wing of the party may not realize is how poor its timing is. The religious right has had this problem before — the movement strongly opposed John McCain in 2008, but waited until he’d won New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida to start pushing Mike Huckabee in a concerted, organized way.

Likewise, it’s a little late in the game to decide Santorum’s their man for 2012. For months, this contingent of Republican voters has been split largely three ways, backing Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry. Michele Bachmann and even Ron Paul have generated some modest religious right support, too. The splintering, not surprisingly, has made it that much easier for Romney to take control of the race for the nomination.

These groups and leaders decided to wait until after Romney won Iowa and New Hampshire, and took the lead in South Carolina and Florida, to then said, “Hmm, maybe we should pick someone before it’s too late.”

Guess what, religious right? It’s already too late, and you should have done this in October.

For that matter, it’s not altogether clear how the endorsement will translate into votes. The groups didn’t encourage other candidates to get out of Santorum’s way, and none of the participants, at least publicly, committed any resources to Santorum’s effort. Indeed, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins told reporters yesterday he and his partners would not officially launch a new pro-Santorum initiative: “It will not be a coordinated effort.” These guys have the organizational strength to affect the race, but it’s not clear if they’re prepared to flex that muscle to the necessary extent.

In other words, the most likely scenario is that the far-right will continue to be split and Romney will continue to run the table. I can imagine Santorum getting some benefit from yesterday’s announced endorsement, but it’s still very hard to see the end game in which the former senator becomes the competitive anti-Mitt that can push this race into the early spring (unless Gingrich and Perry drop out fairly soon and throw their support to him).

By the way, while Gingrich was no doubt disappointed by the outcome of yesterday’s meeting, it’s Rick Perry who looks the worst. The Texas governor has long been a darling of the religious right, and the movement assumed last summer that he would be their standard bearer through the primaries. And yet, when the nation’s most powerful evangelical political leaders gathered — in Texas, no less — Perry was largely deemed an afterthought.

There are occasional whispers about a possible Perry comeback, but yesterday seems to mark another nail in the coffin for his national ambitions.