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Santorum Hopes Evangelical Backing Will Help In S.C.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We find out soon if evangelical leaders can still deliver votes in South Carolina. After struggling for months to unite behind a candidate, they met over the weekend and endorsed former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

INSKEEP: Let's recall: Santorum nearly won Iowa, fell far behind in New Hampshire, and is now making his case to conservative voters in South Carolina. Evangelicals hope Santorum will emerge as a strong alternative to Mitt Romney. Some conservatives do not trust Romney, though he is moving rapidly toward the GOP nomination.

NPR's Don Gonyea has been following Santorum's campaign.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Santorum's Sunday would include a prayer breakfast in Myrtle Beach and a town hall in the town of Florence. But first, thanks to the stamp of approval he got from prominent evangelicals, it was an appearance on "Fox News Sunday," where he spoke of the endorsement with a mix of pride, gratitude and validation.

RICK SANTORUM: So we feel very, very good that, with their support, we're going to get a network of grassroots leaders here, lining up behind us and giving us that surge that we need coming down to this last week.

GONYEA: Santorum got just such a surge in Iowa. That one was a product of both hard work and a collapse in the polls by former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich. In South Carolina, polls show Santorum well behind both Romney and Gingrich, and essentially tied with Congressman Ron Paul. But evangelicals make up 60 percent of the likely GOP primary voters in the state, so he sees an opening.

Yesterday afternoon at a restaurant in Florence, Santorum gave it the hard sell. He argued that this election is not all about the economy and the government's fiscal health, as it often portrayed.

SANTORUM: If all you think we need to do to get this economy going and to get this country on the right track, is to cut government and reduce taxes, you don't understand America. America is a moral enterprise, not an economic enterprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: Those words were aimed directly at Mitt Romney, who's running as a businessman with firsthand knowledge of how the economy works.

The audience at the Santorum event included hardcore supporters and some new converts. There were also undecided voters, many looking for someone to vote for other than Mitt Romney.

In the back of the room were husband and wife Jay and Susan Merrifield. He's leaning toward Santorum, over Romney. She just yesterday decided to vote for Santorum - over her second choice, Texas Governor Rick Perry. I asked them both if they think the endorsement from evangelical leaders will have much impact in South Carolina.

JAY MERRIFIELD: No, not really. I'm surprised they didn't pick Perry, really.

SUSAN MERRIFIELD: It makes me happy though, 'cause now I'm thinking maybe Focus on the Family and some those other shows will talk about him on the radio. And more people will hear while they driving and hear Santorum's message.

GONYEA: The potential for Santorum to do well in South Carolina has made him a target of attacks ads, this one paid for by a Super PAC that supports Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

GONYEA: In Florence, Santorum called that ad lie, and the kind of tactic used by a candidate who can't run on his own credentials as a conservative.

But Susan Merrifield, the new Santorum supporter, said she's seen a lot worse in a state known for its hardball politics.

S. MERRIFIELD: I didn't consider it, you know, real bad. I just consider it, well, that's politics and they're going to do it.

GONYEA: Santorum's opponents have plenty of incentive to derail his drive to consolidate the sizeable and critical South Carolina evangelical vote. So he'd better be prepared for even more such attacks.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Myrtle Beach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.