More than 150 leaders in the conservative evangelical Christian community are getting together Friday and Saturday at a private ranch west of Houston in a last-ditch effort to derail Mitt Romney's march to the Republican nomination.
The meeting, which will feature state and regional leaders as well as prominent pastors and national-profile evangelical stars, is not intended as a Romney-bashing event, says Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a big voice among conservative evangelicals.
"Some have portrayed this as an anti-Romney rally, a bash-Mitt weekend," says Perkins, who has become the de facto spokesman for the supposed-to-be-secret event. "It's not."
"What is driving it is discomfort with Mitt Romney among evangelicals, and the search for another candidate," he said. Some evangelicals see this as their last chance to stop Romney, with the South Carolina primary just a week after their meeting.
The list of possible alternatives to Romney, who already has wins under his belt in Iowa and New Hampshire:
- Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who finished within eight votes of Romney in Iowa.
- Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an early evangelical favorite now barely registering in preference polls.
- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose redemption story has appealed to some evangelicals. But some say he's hurt himself with recent attacks on Romney's private-equity work.
"Realistically, I don't think that there's any expectation that people are going to come out of the meeting and say that we've arrived at a unanimous decision for candidate A or B," Perkins says. "An endorsement was not the purpose or the expected outcome."
What will probably happen, he says, is a vigorous discussion about where candidates stand on the issues and perhaps a consensus among the leaders, who could make their own endorsements.
That consensus appears to be moving toward Santorum, who could benefit greatly in South Carolina from big evangelical endorsements.
However, recent polls show that many evangelicals in South Carolina are not unhappy with Romney. A Time poll conducted last week found that 35 percent of the state's born-again Christians supported Romney, with Santorum picking up 22 percent.
One of the problems for the stop-Romney forces is the abundance of alternatives.
"You have a few conservative candidates slicing up the conservative voting bloc," Perkins says.
Perkins and others have repeatedly likened the situation to 2008, when Sen. John McCain, no favorite of the Christian right, got a crucial win in South Carolina on his way to the GOP nomination. He topped a divided field that included former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.
In addition to Perkins, other influential evangelicals expected at the Texas gathering include:
Founder in 1977 of the National Federation for Decency, renamed the American Family Association, which lists "restraining evil by exposing the works of darkness" as one of its aims. Wildmon, 73, a Methodist minister when he started the organization, is prominent in anti-abortion and anti-gay efforts. He made a name for himself protesting retailers and TV networks because of advertising and programming he viewed as immoral or anti-Christian.
He stepped down as chairman of the powerhouse AFA in 2010, ceding authority to his 48-year-old son, Tim. The organization has more than 170 radio stations and a multimillion-dollar budget. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers it a hate group.
Wildmon, a Mississippi native who remains AFA's chairman emeritus, has endorsed Gingrich.
Dobson, 75, founded Focus on the Family in 1977 and built it into one of the most influential platforms for social conservatism in the nation. He became the voice of a generation of evangelicals, producing a daily radio program that once reached an estimated 220 million people around the globe.
The Louisiana-born Dobson, who received a doctorate in child development in 1967, has supported parenting that includes corporal punishment, has postulated that God does not approve of homosexuality, and famously issued a statement in 2008 saying he would not vote for McCain "as a matter of conscience." He backed Huckabee four years ago.
Dobson, who left Focus on the Family in 2010, now hosts a radio program, Family Talk With Dr. James Dobson. He is also the founder of the Family Research Council, the conservative Christian lobbying group that Perkins heads.
He has not yet endorsed a candidate.
Since 1988, Land has been president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He also served in the George W. Bush administration on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He was the main author of a letter that outlined for Bush the religious right's argument that the invasion of Iraq would be a "just war."
When Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, then a prospective GOP presidential candidate, said last spring that Americans want a "truce" on social issues until the economy improves, Land pushed back on the pages of the Wall Street Journal. "Social conservatives are mad," he wrote about Daniels' comment, "and rightly so."
A Baptist pastor, Land, born in 1946, has described Mormonism as "the fourth Abrahamic religion," but he asserts that many evangelicals do not view the faith as Christian. He has said that should not be a disqualifier for evangelical Christians, but he questions Romney's past stands on abortion and gay rights.
In 2008, Land's positive comments about Romney led some to suggest he had endorsed the former Massachusetts governor. Land was forced to clarify his position, saying that comments he made defending Romney's right to run, despite evangelical discomfort, should not be construed as an endorsement.
Onetime presidential candidate Bauer, 65, is a former president of the Family Research Council. He heads American Values, a nonprofit focused on opposing abortion rights and gay marriage. He's also founder of the political action committee Campaign for Working Families.
Bauer, who's active in pro-Israel efforts within the evangelical community, has endorsed Santorum.