Rick Santorum was fresh off his surprise showing in the Iowa caucuses and fielding questions on a radio program, when a caller challenged the Republican presidential candidate on his overt religiosity.
"He said, 'We don't need a Jesus candidate. We need an economic candidate,' " Santorum recalled later, at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire. "And my answer to that was, 'We always need a Jesus candidate, right?' "
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, and a Catholic, wants to claim that mantle. So does former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who's also a Catholic, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who's an evangelical. Yet none of them has won the hearts of conservative leaders.
"There is no perfect candidate," says Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis at the American Family Association. "Jesus Christ is not on the ballot in any of the primary elections, so that means social conservatives have to do triage."
To perform the triage, more than 150 religious conservatives are gathering at a Texas ranch Friday and Saturday. Among the bigger names: Tony Perkins of Family Research Council; Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate; James Dobson, who used to head Focus on the Family; and Don Wildmon, who once ran American Family Association.
The mission of this "emergency meeting" is to unite behind one true-blue religious conservative for the Republican nomination. Fischer says evangelicals are desperate to defeat President Obama. But he does not believe former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — whom they distrust on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage — can generate the passion to do that.
"If Romney gets the nomination, his support is going be tepid, lukewarm, maybe even nonexistent," Fischer says.
It probably won't be that bad, says Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. Polls suggest that given the choice between Romney and President Obama in a general election contest, 9 out of 10 evangelicals would vote for Romney.
And yet, Land says: "Before we marry the guy next door, don't you think we ought to have a fling with a tall dark stranger and see if he can support us in the manner to which we'd like to be accustomed? And if he can't, we can always marry the steady beau who lives next door."
Learning From Past Mistakes
If evangelical leaders fail to unite behind what they see as a staunch religious conservative, Fischer says, they'll make the same "mistake" they made four years ago.
"I do think some social conservative are doing some 20-20 hindsight analysis of what happened in 2008," he says. "Realizing they had a social conservative candidate to back in [former Arkansas Gov.] Mike Huckabee, they didn't coalesce around him, and that provided a path for [Arizona Sen.] John McCain — who was not a fighter on our issues — to win the nomination."
On Friday night, surrogates for each candidate will come before the crowd and make a case for their guy. Saturday morning, the group will discuss whom to crown.
Land notes that each of the serious contenders has flaws: Gingrich has his multiple marriages and ethical violations. Perry has his gaffes and his oops moment. Santorum has little money to run a national campaign.
Complicating the matter, Land says, is that many of the leaders are already backing a candidate. "And what they're saying: 'I think it's great. We need to be united behind a social conservative, but I can't really do that until my guy's out of the race.' "
Others say the Texas gathering may be less than meets the eye in another way: These so-called elites just don't wield the power they used to.
"Gone are the days of the kingmakers who can sit in a room and decide who the evangelical candidate is," says Robert P. Jones, who heads the Public Religion Research Institute. He says the organizations that so influenced Republican politics during the 1980s and 1990s now sit on the sidelines.
"Focus on the Family has laid off hundreds of people," Jones notes. "The Moral Majority is no more. The Christian Coalition is no more. So these groups that really were able to translate these decisions made in closed rooms by a group of men deciding who was going to be the next candidate really don't exist in the way they did."
Fischer may not buy that analysis, but he does think the Texas meeting will end in a draw.
"They're going to come away and say, 'Well, look, we're not going to be able to come together and unite behind one candidate. So this is an issue that voters in South Carolina [on Jan. 21] and Florida [on Jan. 31] are going to have to decide for us,' " he says.
And by then, it may be too late for anyone but Romney.