Conservatives rally behind Santorum

Momentum bolsters the presidential campaign of the anti-gay rights ex-senator

Beyond the town-by-town, topsy-turvy of primary campaigning in New Hampshire this weekend, conservative Republicans nationally are agonising over whether they still have time to unite behind one of their own, to stop moderate Mitt Romney from bulldozing his way to the party's presidential nomination.

While fresh polls suggest that New Hampshire will deliver a solid victory to Mr Romney on Tuesday, there were fresh signs yesterday that Rick Santorum, who came within a whisker of winning the Iowa caucuses last week, is picking up steam, if not here then certainly in South Carolina, a state heavy with evangelical voters, which polls a week on Saturday.

All six remaining runners were due in Manchester last night for a live TV debate and will meet again this morning for a second encounter, sponsored by Facebook. Most attention in New Hampshire is now focused on how the candidates stack up beneath Mr Romney, who has an edge here as the former governor of neighbouring Massachusetts.

Ron Paul, whose libertarian bona fides should endear him to a state that has "Live Free or Die" on its number plates, has been distracted by the uproar caused when an affiliated group released a racially charged online spot targeting Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, the only other moderate challenging Romney. The segment features Mr Huntsman's two adopted Asian daughters and asks: "American values? Or Chinese?"

In a sign, meanwhile, of the right's agitation, a cabal of Christian right heavyweights is set to gather behind closed doors this Friday and Saturday in a private home north-west of Houston, Texas, co-hosted by former presidential candidate Gary Bauer. On the agenda: what they can do, if anything, to salvage the nomination race for the conservative wing of the party. After flirting with one conservative alternative after another – Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain (both of whom are now out) as well as Governor Rick Perry of Texas and former House speaker Newt Gingrich – non-Romney Republicans in Iowa stampeded at the 11th hour to Mr Santorum, an anti-gay rights, anti-abortion former US senator whose Christian views include suggesting that individual US states should be allowed to ban contraception if they like.

"Conservatives are still divided among a number of different candidates, but the field is winnowing," Mr Bauer commented, ahead of the Texas gathering. "I certainly think that Senator Santorum is in a good position to inherit a lot of that support." Mr Romney is distrusted by the Christian right because of moderate positions he took in the past on issues such as gay rights and because of healthcare reforms he passed in Massachusetts that in part became a template for those introduced nationally by Barack Obama. He essentially tied with Mr Santorum in Iowa. If he wins here and then in South Carolina and in Florida, which votes on 31 January, he may quickly become the presumptive nominee.

Support for Mr Romney has until now been stuck at about 25 per cent. But he remains confident because conservative Republicans continue to divide their support among his right-wing rivals – Mr Santorum, Mr Gingrich, Governor Perry and also Mr Paul. Corralling them into supporting just one of those candidates will be far from easy.

The desire, as South Carolina approaches, is strong, however. "There is movement, even members of Congress who are weighing this now who are looking to make a move," Tony Perkins, president of the ultra-conservative Family Research Council commented. "We're moving closer to a point where decisions need to be made. I do think you'll see growing momentum toward Rick Santorum."

"It's time for the conservatives to get off the sidelines and get into the arena, and make our choice known," chimed in Richard Viguerie, a veteran fundraiser for Republicans nationally. And he knows who that person should be. "There was Rick Santorum, in plain sight, all along," he said.

Mr Gingrich, who has seen the floor open beneath him in recent weeks and appears to have lost the lead he had in the South Carolina polls, argues he is the man to back, not Santorum. "You'll eventually come down to one conservative and Governor Romney," he predicted while campaigning here. "And he'll continue to get 25 per cent. By definition at some point in that game some is going to start getting a lot more votes than Governor Romney."

A CNN poll for South Carolina shows Mr Romney with an impressive 37 per cent of support. After him come Mr Santorum and Mr Gingrich with 19 and 18 per cent respectively. Governor Perry, whose chances of reviving his campaign seem slim, registers 5 per cent.

Mr Paul, who is polling a strong second in New Hampshire, has disowned the online ad against Mr Huntsman which was placed by an independent group called NHLiberty4Paul. But Mr Huntsman, who before running served as Mr Obama's ambassador in Beijing, did not waste time in condemning it. "If someone wants to poke fun at me, that's OK," he said. "What I object to is bringing forward pictures and videos of my adopted daughters and suggesting there's something sinister there."

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