GREENVILLE, South Carolina (Reuters) - Religious conservative voters in South Carolina, shaking off months of indecision, are showing signs of movement toward surging Rick Santorum but are still badly split in the Republican presidential race.
Before they jump off the fence, many of those Christian right voters will need to be convinced Santorum is the candidate who can kick President Barack Obama out of the White House.
“I see a little bit of movement to Santorum in South Carolina in the last few days,” said Robert Taylor, a dean at Bob Jones University, the powerful fundamentalist Christian college in Greenville.
“But when you talk about religious conservative voters now, the big consideration is ‘Can he beat Obama?'” Taylor said. “Santorum is still going to have to make the case that he is the one who can do it.”
Santorum took a big first step toward rallying religious right voters last week in Iowa, where he came within eight votes of an upset of front-runner Mitt Romney in the kick-off contest of the 2012 Republican nominating race.
South Carolina is the next battleground after Tuesday’s New Hampshire vote, but polls show Santorum splitting conservative votes here with Texas Governor Rick Perry, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Representative Ron Paul.
The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania has little time before the January 21 primary to ramp up his organizing and spending but appears to be benefiting from the momentum gained in Iowa, said Barry Wynn, a former South Carolina party chairman.
“There is a beginning of a little bit of a groundswell for Santorum,” Wynn said. “Sometimes when you roll that snowball down the hill it gets big faster than you think.”
Santorum, who is Roman Catholic, built his shoestring campaign on a grass-roots appeal to social and religious conservatives. He left New Hampshire to kick off the South Carolina race on Sunday and won the endorsement of evangelical leader Gary Bauer, who called him “a conservative leader for our times.”
“We are going to plant our flag here in South Carolina,” Santorum promised an overflow crowd that packed a chicken-wing restaurant in Greenville. He said his values meshed well with the conservative state.
“Please pray for us, it’s a tough battle,” he said. “We are a great country because we have a strong foundation of faith and family.”
Three polls late last week showed Romney taking the lead in South Carolina, with Santorum rising to battle Gingrich for second place. The polls also found about half of the state’s likely voters could still switch their allegiance.
South Carolina Republican primary voters in 2008 were overwhelmingly conservative and religious, with exit polls showing nearly two-thirds attended church at least once a week and seven in 10 believed abortion should be illegal.
But Arizona Senator John McCain won South Carolina over Baptist minister Mike Huckabee in 2008, proving a more moderate candidate can beat a religious conservative contender in the Bible-belt state.
Economic concerns in South Carolina, where unemployment is higher than the national average and worse than all but seven states, could help draw voters to Romney’s argument that as a former businessman he knows how to create jobs.
The South Carolina showdown could be the last chance for conservatives to stop the more moderate Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who has a big lead in New Hampshire polls and a chance to clinch the nomination early.
“I think there is a lot of interest in Santorum, if he does well in New Hampshire it will really help him here,” said Wendell Estep, pastor at the First Baptist Church in Columbia, who has met Santorum, Perry and Gingrich and is undecided.
“But I don’t think people are ready to make up their minds yet,” he said.
Santorum supporters at a campaign event in Greenville said they were not concerned he was Catholic, although they acknowledged it could be a stumbling block for some voters.
“He is exactly what we need to bring the country back - and I think he can beat Obama,” said Lynn Waldrop, a Greenville homemaker with two kids who described herself as a born-again Christian.
“Iowa has put some steam in his campaign here,” said Tammy Smith, a school nurse in Moore, South Carolina, and a Presbyterian who described herself as a Christian conservative.
“I like his position on family values. If we can make our families strong, we can make the country strong,” she said.
The shifting nature of the race, which has seen several contenders falter after rising to become the top conservative alternative to Romney, has left some conservative voters bewildered.
“As you watch each candidate fall, people have been saying ‘OK, now who do we go for?'” said John Lehman, pastor at Hampton Park Baptist Church in Greenville, where Perry planned a visit on Sunday evening.
Lehman said those shifts had fed worries about finding a candidate who can reclaim the White House. Polls show Romney, distrusted by many conservatives because of his past moderate positions, performs best of any of the Republicans in direct match-ups with Obama.
The CNN/Time poll last week showed Romney, a Mormon, grabbing a respectable slice of the conservative vote in South Carolina. He was backed by about one-third of self-described Christians, conservatives and Tea Party voters.
“There is some concern that we need to get behind whoever can rally the vote and win the White House,” Lehman said. “People are trying to decide who is going to win in the end.”
If Romney comes out of New Hampshire with two straight wins, an inevitability factor begins to kick in, said Republican strategist Chip Felkel of Greenville.
“I don’t get the sense there has been a ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment to bring them together,” he said of religious conservatives. “But if anyone does it, it will be Santorum.”
Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Walsh