AUSTIN, Texas — Social conservative leaders from across the nation will gather at a Texas ranch this weekend to discuss their choice of candidates in the Republican presidential race, including the possibility of uniting behind a candidate other than front-runner Mitt Romney.
The gathering at the Hidden Hills Ranch of a former Texas judge, Paul Pressler, underscores the antipathy evident among many social conservatives and evangelicals toward Romney, a former Massachusetts governor whose back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire make him the man to beat in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
A number of social conservative leaders whose groups represent millions of grassroots members perceive Romney as a moderate and question his commitment to their priority issues, such as opposition to abortion and gay marriages.
Romney faces a rigorous challenge in the battle for the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, where evangelicals and social conservatives represent as much as 60 percent of the Republican electorate. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum are all waging a big push for the social conservative vote in an effort to emerge as the dominant alternative to Romney.
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Several hundred conservatives have reportedly been invited to the two-day "call to action" about 90 miles east of Austin, but it was unclear Thursday how many plan to attend. A first round of discussions is scheduled for Friday evening, followed by additional talks on Saturday, lasting until early afternoon.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and chief spokesman for the gathering, said he is unsure if the meeting will produce "unanimous agreement" behind a single candidate. But he said it could foster a "growing consensus" as the leaders air out their differing views on Romney and opposing candidates.
Another participant, speaking on condition of anonymity because of a confidentiality pledge, told McClatchy that the conservatives are likely to hold additional meetings before trying to choose a consensus candidate in an attempt to block Romney from the nomination.
Conservative heavyweights hosting or invited to the event include James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of the Liberty Institute; Don Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association; and Gary Bauer, president of American Values.
"This coming election could prove to be the most critical of our lifetime," reads the invitation. "Conservatives of faith need to attempt to reach a consensus on which Republican presidential candidate or candidates we can support, in order to be most effective."
David Barton, president and founder of WallBuilders, a national pro-family organization based in Aledo, Texas, said the hunt for a consensus may be difficult since many of the participants are torn between candidates. "It's split all over," said Barton, who said he was invited but probably will be unable to attend.
Barton, a former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party, said he believes that 80 percent of evangelicals are divided among Perry, Santorum and Gingrich, while the remainder are leaning toward Romney, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Oran Smith, who heads the Palmetto Family Council in Columbia, S.C., said Perry, Santorum and Gingrich appear to be the chief competitors for evangelicals and social conservatives in South Carolina. Paul also has support within that constituency, Smith said, but his libertarian views on social issues, including opposition to drug laws, have made some social conservatives uneasy.
Perry appeared to be a dominant contender for social conservatives early in the race after conducting "The Response," a national day of prayer that drew thousands of evangelicals to Houston's Reliant Stadium in mid-August, just before he entered the race.
Much of his evangelical support dwindled as his candidacy faltered — he ran third behind Santorum and Paul among religious conservatives in Iowa — but he is attempting to rebuild his evangelical base in South Carolina. Perry will appear at a prayer rally Tuesday in Greenville, S.C., that is being put on by The Response USA, the group that helped organized his event in Houston.
(Montgomery is the Austin bureau chief for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
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