- (Photo: REUTERS/Benjamin Myers)
The lack of a clear front-runner in the Republican primaries is causing candidates to scramble for endorsements, which may mean evangelical leaders who previously backed Rick Santorum could flip-flop and throw the support of the Christian right to another, more viable, candidate – perhaps Newt Gingrich.
Santorum took first place in the Iowa caucuses, slightly nudging out Mitt Romney by a mere 34 votes.
Roughly three percentage points separated the top three places in the tight race, which was rounded out with Ron Paul, the most libertarian of the Republican candidates.
Romney took nearly 40 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. Paul took second and Santorum took less than 10 percent of the vote.
Evangelical leaders publicly backed Santorum before the South Carolina primary, but the support from the nation's Christian leaders failed to yield results. Santorum, however, took only 17 percent of the vote, coming in third place behind Romney and Gingrich.
Gingrich won the state overwhelmingly, taking 40 percent of the vote. Romney trailed with just 27 percent.
The win gave Gingrich's campaign momentum. Now, the candidate is seeking support from evangelical leaders in the Sunshine State as the primaries roll into Florida, which is expected to be another hotly contested state.
"There's no question Gov. Romney will always have more money," Gingrich said of his Florida campaign.
But Gingrich boasts strength in numbers of a different sort – evangelical volunteers.
His campaign has 5,000-6,000 campaign volunteers, a large number of them evangelicals, according to staffers.
It is those numbers that Gingrich hopes will counter Romney's high numbers – largely, the high number of campaign money.
However, it is unclear if the state's evangelical community can unite behind Gingrich.
Gingrich has been married three times and admittedly was unfaithful in at least one of his marriages; something traditionally "value voters" find disconcerting.
On the other hand, Romney is seen by some as too liberal with regards to gay marriage and abortion. Massachusetts began allowing gay marriage in the state while Romney was governor. He also has not endorsed a federal ban on abortion, rather tossing the issue back to the Supreme Court and individual states.
The South Carolina primary may have set the stage for a reversal of decisions of sorts – a backing switch from the once-electable Santorum to the new front-runner Gingrich.
"The evangelicals are not going to wrap their arms around Romney in this primary or the general election," John Grant, a Baptist leader and one of Gingrich's Florida evangelical chairmen, told The Associated Press. "Gingrich is pulling these people together quite nicely."
Grant plans to proselytize Gingrich's message to other evangelical leaders in the state. Baptist publications and churches are talking about his message and Gingrich himself plans to meet with church leaders in the coming days.
The lack of a clear front-runner in the primaries has left the religious community split on who to endorse and how firm of an endorsement to send. The most recent Gallup poll indicates that Romney and Gingrich have the support of 29 and 28 percent of potential voters, respectively. Paul out-nudges Santorum 13 to 11 percent.
In a general election against President Barack Obama, the Gallup poll shows both Romney and Gingrich at 48 percent of the vote, while Obama holds a slight lead at 50 percent. The numbers fall well within the margin of error, making it even murkier territory for pundits.
It is unclear how evangelical leaders plan to balance electability with a strict adherence to values.
Santorum, who had the support of national evangelical leaders who voted in Texas to back him Jan. 14, has been noticeably absent in Florida. He hired a campaign staff last week, indicating to some that he may never have intended to remain in the race this long.
As the field narrows, Gingrich may prove to be a more viable candidate than Santorum as someone that can take on Romney in the primaries and eventually Obama in the general election.
It is unclear if voters will be swayed by the new push when they head to the polls on Tuesday, Jan. 31.
Gingrich has made a heavy push to revamp his image in recent years, openly admitting to past indiscretions and publicly embracing Christian beliefs. Gingrich converted to Catholicism several years ago and maintains that prayer is an important aspect of his day-to-day life.
It leaves some supporters focusing on the new man, rather than Gingrich's previous mistakes.
"I wish he didn't have that background, but I honestly believe he's had a real renaissance experience," Grant said.