Ron Paul persona non grata at Evangelicals’ anti-Romney confab

Ron Paul persona non grata at Evangelicals' anti-Romney confab

Will Evangelicals be the spoilers of 2012? Mayhaps. Elizabeth Dias at Time reports that 125 social conservative leaders are gathering at a Texas ranch this weekend in an attempt to coalesce around a candidate who can challenge Mitt Romney.

Organizers of course insist that’s not the case — “If this were a stop-Romney meeting, I would not attend,” said Rick Santorum supporter and former Family Research Council president Gary Bauer — but the event’s actual invitation suggests otherwise.

“This coming election could prove to be the most critical of our lifetime,” it warned, while sponsor and long-time right wing extremist Don Wildmon pleaded with attendees to “be willing to compromise and change your choice to one that the body as a whole supports in order to not divide our strength.”

Santorum, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich appear to be the only candidates on the table as Evangelicals willfully ignore Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. Huntsman is probably getting the proverbial shaft because despite his third place finish in New Hampshire, the former Utah governor is a comparatively weak candidate. And Paul’s Libertarian leanings are anathema to social conservatives who want to see a Bible-thumping commander-in-chief running the White House.

It is also possible the group will put pressure on one or more candidates to leave the race, just as influential Iowa social conservative Bob Vander Plaats allegedly did with also-ran Michele Bachmann.

But as Dias points out, the odds of this group of Republican rabble-rousers are unlikely to come to a consensus on a preferred candidate. “Newt’s a brilliant guy. But Newt doesn’t have baggage—Newt’s got freight. Perry, at least this go-around, is not a credible presidential candidate because of his gaffes and his goofs,” says Richard Land, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president who is expected to attend this weekend. “And Santorum, is he a recognizable national figure? Can he raise the money? Can he become competitive?”

Land’s reservation’s aside, Santorum may have a slight edge:

Signs indicate that if the group can settle on one candidate, Santorum is the most likely. Although he is Catholic, his social positions mirror evangelicals’ on gay marriage and abortion. “He has less apparent downside than the other two and more apparent upside,” Land says. “It would be nice to try to unite around one of the three remaining candidates and have a go at being competitive with Romney in the primaries.”

Perhaps not competitive enough, however: though Santorum won Evangelicals in Iowa — 32 percent over Romney’s 14 — Romney trounced him in New Hampshire 31 to 23, according to Deseret News. And early projections for next week’s South Carolina primary also give Romney a hefty lead among members of the traditional GOP voting bloc: 35% of Evangelical voters in the Palmetto State pick Romney over Santorum, who’s backed by only 22% of such citizens.

We’ll know more about what happens on Monday, but Evangelicals had better be careful their machinations and plotting don’t blow up in their face and further splinter a party in the midst of an identity crisis.