BRENHAM, Texas — 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.
But the broader effect on the contest is less clear, particularly if the Republican field remains fractured. If the support had come earlier in the primary campaign, before Mr. Romney emerged as the leading candidate to beat, it could have had greater impact. In most surveys, Mr. Romney outpaces his rivals when respondents are asked who has the best chance of defeating President Obama.
Mr. Santorum, who fought Mr. Romney to a draw in the Iowa caucuses and has stirred enough concern in the eyes of a pro-Romney group to warrant a negative television ad in South Carolina, beamed when asked about the endorsement at a campaign stop on Saturday.
“They’ve looked at not just what we’ve been able to accomplish during this primary season so far,” Mr. Santorum told reporters in Mount Pleasant, S.C. “But they’ve looked at the track record of someone that’s been a strong, consistent voice across the board on all the conservative issues.”
Conservatives, after finding success in Congressional elections two years ago, are under significant pressure to reestablish themselves in hopes of blunting the rise of Mr. Romney, who is derisively referred to by his opponents as a “Massachusetts moderate.” They openly question his consistency on social and fiscal conservatism.
Evangelical leaders, along with many other components of the conservative movement, have been fractured over the race, which contributed to Mr. Romney’s success in Iowa and New Hampshire. But with time running short and Mr. Romney holding considerable advantages, the leaders sought to table their divisions and chose, by a wide margin, to support Mr. Santorum over Newt Gingrich or Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.
The extent to which those attending the meeting will be able to mobilize their followers behind Mr. Santorum remains unclear. The group’s vote is not binding on participants and the leaders did not directly ask Mr. Gingrich or Mr. Perry to drop out of the race.
--Erik Eckhom and Jeff Zeleny
The good news is that they had the best ice cream in the country.