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Can evangelicals settle on Romney?

By Terri Bimes, Special to CNN
updated 4:23 PM EST, Fri January 13, 2012
Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry have vied for the votes of conservative Christians.
Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry have vied for the votes of conservative Christians.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Evangelicals meet in Texas to mull which GOP candidate to back for president
  • They doubt Mitt Romney is true social conservative, seek an alternative, Terri Bimes says
  • Bimes asks if social conservatives have lost sway in GOP?
  • Bimes: Possibly, but they have influenced Romney to run more as a conservative just the same

Editor's note: Terri Bimes is a lecturer in the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science and assistant director of research at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

(CNN) -- On Friday and Saturday, evangelical Christian leaders are in Texas to discuss how best to coordinate their efforts to ensure a true social conservative wins the Republican nomination. Struggling with Mitt Romney's moderate record as governor of Massachusetts (and, in some cases, lingering concerns about his Mormonism), socially conservative Republicans are reportedly searching for a way to stop the front-runner.

Having multiple candidates vying for their faction's votes has only increased Romney's chances of winning the nomination. To have any hope of slowing the Romney juggernaut, social conservatives need to coalesce around one candidate. The problem is that heading into the meeting, there is no single obvious alternative to the ex-Massachusetts governor, making it unlikely that the meeting will result in an endorsement.

But even if this is the outcome, social conservatives can console themselves with the knowledge that presidential candidate Romney looks more like one of their own than Gov. Romney.

GOP poised to make history with non-Protestant presidential nominee

To illustrate my point, compare Iowa 2008 to Iowa 2012. Four years ago, Mike Huckabee was the sole candidate in Iowa with strong appeal among social conservatives in a field headlined by Romney, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Ron Paul and the lackluster Fred Thompson. Huckabee was the clear choice of Christian conservatives and easily took Iowa.

Fast-forward to Iowa 2012. Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann were each competing strongly for the votes of Christian conservatives. If Santorum had been the only candidate appealing to Christian conservatives in Iowa, he may well have won the kind of convincing victory that would have made him a serious competitor to Romney. Instead, Gingrich, Santorum and Perry continue to compete for essentially the same voters.

Heading into South Carolina and Florida, the main question is whether socially conservative Republican voters will pick one alternative to Romney. This would likely require either Gingrich or Santorum -- and likely Perry -- to withdraw. The problem for social conservatives, however, is that it is not at all clear who of the three has the best shot to defeat Romney, given their evident limitations as candidates.

Can meeting of evangelical elites change GOP race?

Are these results a sign that the influence of the GOP's socially conservative base has been overblown by the news media and pundits over the past several years? It is true that the 2008 nominee, McCain, was a far cry from the top choice of social conservatives. So is Romney. However, it is also worth noting that both McCain and Romney ended up adopting a conservative position on virtually every significant social issue at play in the election.

Social conservatives may have only a limited ability to determine whom the GOP will nominate -- particularly when they fail to settle on a single candidate -- but the long road Romney has traveled from the governor of Massachusetts to the presumptive GOP nominee also suggests the continued influence of socially conservative Republican voters. Romney may not be their top choice, but his success has depended on demonstrating that he is by no means their enemy.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Terri Bimes.

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