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Conservatives feud over Santorum endorsement

Some say Texas weekend gathering manipulated

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Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, accompanied by his wife, Karen (center right), son Daniel (left) and daughter Elizabeth (second left), speaks during a primary night rally on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In an evolving power struggle, religious conservatives are feuding about whether a weekend meeting in Texas yielded a consensus that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is the best bet to stop Mitt Romney’s drive for the Republican presidential nomination.

A leading evangelical and former aide to President George H.W. Bush said he agreed with suspicions voiced by others at the meeting of evangelical and conservative Catholic activists that organizers “manipulated” the gathering and may even have stuffed the ballot to produce an endorsement of Mr. Santorum over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Santorum, who nearly upset Mr. Romney in the Iowa caucuses, won the first ballot ahead of Mr. Gingrich in Saturday’s Texas meeting but the margin was too slim for organizers to claim a consensus. It was not until the third ballot, taken after many people had left to catch flights back home, that Mr. Santorum won more than 70 percent of those still in attendance and claimed the endorsement.

Former White House evangelical-outreach official Doug Wead, who represented GOP presidential hopeful Texas Rep. Ron Paul at the event, said it appeared the outcome obviously was determined in advance by the choice of the people invited.

“By the time the weekend was over, it was clear that this had been definitely planned all along as a Rick Santorum event,” Mr. Wead said, noting that he was the only supporter of Mr. Paul to receive an invitation.

“The organizer was for Santorum, the person who created the invitation list was for Santorum, the emcee was for Santorum, and after making sure all of the Gingrich people had vented early, the last three speakers before the vote were for Santorum,” he said.

Added a Gingrich supporter, a prominent social conservative who asked not to be named, “My view is that the vote was manipulated.”

Yet another evangelical political organizer who attended the meeting said he witnessed a possible incident of ballot-box stuffing. In at least one instance, the witness said, a participant was seen writing Mr. Santorum´s name on four separate ballots and putting all four in the box.

The closed-door gathering of about 150 activists at the Benham, Texas, ranch of Nancy and Paul Pressler was being closely watched as perhaps a last chance for social and religious conservatives in the party to change the direction of the nomination fight by uniting around a single alternative to Mr. Romney, whom many distrust.

The Wead allegations are part of an acrimonious power struggle — some involved call it a “civil war” — on the religious right about whether to back Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum, Mr. Paul or Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Just what happened in the meeting and whether the result was manipulated have sparked a stream of emails back and forth among leading conservatives after the meeting broke up.

Supporters of Mr. Santorum defended both the process and the result of the Texas vote.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told The Washington Times that he thinks it “is unfortunate that there were a few individuals that have chosen to malign the process and their conservative colleagues. This is not reflective of the tone of tenor of the meeting in Houston.”

Longtime conservative activist Richard Viguerie denied charges of collusion by meeting organizers.

“After two ballots, the group had narrowed the field to Santorum and Gingrich, with Santorum leading,” he said. “On the third and final ballot, a number of Gingrich supporters, in a principled effort to achieve unity, switched their support to Santorum. This resulted in a strong 75 percent consensus of the group in support of Sen. Santorum’s candidacy.”

Let Freedom Ring founder Colin Hanna, a pro-Santorum evangelical, told The Washington Times that he and his wife may have been the unwitting inspiration for the charges of ballot stuffing.

He said he and his wife left for home after the first ballot and had asked another couple in attendance to cast proxy votes for Mr. Santorum in the second round of voting.

Mr. Perkins strongly defended the Texas meeting as “a remarkable gathering of conservatives leaders.”

“There was no absence of passion in the advocating for perspectives or preferences, but it was marked with tremendous camaraderie and cordiality,” he said. “While not everyone agrees with the outcome, they do agree with how the group arrived at that outcome.”

But Mr. Wead, who said meeting participants were warned not to discuss the gathering in the media, was still upset and said the entire exercise was misguided.

“The idea of evangelicals meeting this late to select a candidate always struck me as incredibly naive, almost stupid. It is way too late for that,” he said.

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About the Author

Ralph Z. Hallow

Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.

 

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