The gathering of more than 100 evangelical Christian leaders and activists in rural Texas this weekend was an 11th-hour effort to unite "movement conservatives" behind a rival to Mitt Romney and demonstrate their own power within the Republican Party.
Instead, it may well be a revelation of their weakness as a force within the GOP. Because if Romney still wins the South Carolina primary next weekend, this final flailing attempt to stop him will make his victory all the more important — and his eventual nomination all the more inevitable.
The Texas confab (at the ranch of a conservative judge and fundamentalist Paul Pressler) threw its collective weight behind Rick Santorum by a better than two-thirds vote. About one in four held out for Newt Gingrich, while a rump group stuck with the local boy, Texas Gov. Rick Perry. There were apparently few votes if any for Romney, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman.
Santorum was an improbable beneficiary of all this. He had been hanging on at the fringe of the field as recently as last month, then rose in Iowa to a virtual tie with Romney after some evangelicals coalesced behind him there. He got about three-fourths of the vote Baptist minister Mike Huckabee had enjoyed in winning the Iowa caucuses in 2008.
The hope at the Pressler ranch summit was that Santorum, bolstered now on a wider stage, will reproduce his Iowa miracle in South Carolina and beyond. That would spare the most doctrinaire social and economic hardliners a painful November choice between Romney and President Obama.
But the chances of Santorum achieving this remain remote.
It would be different if the decision of these self-appointed sentinels to settle on one candidate meant other contenders for the anti-Romney role would quit the race. But they won't.
It would also be different if this late backing meant Santorum would have enough money overnight to be competitive on TV, not only in South Carolina but in the far costlier markets of Florida on Jan. 31. But that much money probably cannot reach Santorum in time.
And it would be different if Santorum had more of what you'd want in a "comeback kid," such as charisma and momentum. But Santorum dissipated his Iowa bump by disappearing in New Hampshire (fifth place at 9 percent). And in public appearances he often leaves crowds less fired up than he finds them, giving long stem-winding answers to questions that dwell on ethical dilemma. The truth is, if he had shown the fire and the connectivity true conservatives have been looking for, they might have gotten behind him long ago.
Of course, the biggest difference might have been achieved if the organizers of the Texas meeting — including Judge Pressler and Tony Perkins of Family Research Council and James Dobson of radio fame — had held this sitdown months ago.
Back then, a big assist for Santorum might have brought millions of dollars in timely fashion. It might have given him more of the limelight in the debates. It might even have cut down on the inventory of candidates all competing for the not-Mitt lane.
No one should dismiss the miraculous effort by which these various evangelists, radio preachers and financiers were brought together and brought to a supermajority vote. It is usually far easier for religious activists to find points of distinction than to reach consensus.
Moreover, considering how few Catholics were at the Texas meeting, it is remarkable that those in attendance gave the lion's share of their support to lifetime-Catholic Santorum and recently converted-Catholic Gingrich.
But the current field does not include a strong contender who fully fits the evangelical mold like Huckabee. Romney and Huntsman are, of course, Mormons. Perry and Ron Paul were raised in mainline Protestant churches (Methodist and Episcopalian, respectively). But Perry has been going to an Austin megachurch since 2010, and Paul now attends a Baptist church.
What about the voters?
It can be argued that just as many Americans today regard themselves as evangelicals — or religious conservatives or "values voters" or whichever label you prefer — as did in Ronald Reagan's time. Some would say their numbers have grown, especially if you include in the category conservative Catholics, Mormons, Jews and members of other faiths with strict social and moral views.
The difference is that these voters do not have a single champion. In fact, no Republican presidential nominee has truly inspired movement conservatives since Reagan ran his last campaign almost three decades ago.
The closest anyone came was George W. Bush, although rather disappointing turnout among evangelicals cost him the popular vote in 2000 (and nearly the election). Some of these voters seemed disturbed by a report of a drunk driving conviction, and others never warmed to the younger Bush in the first place. More of these voters turned out four years later, in part because many states had ballot measures banning gay marriage that fall.
But Republican nominees George H.W. Bush in 1992, Robert Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008 all paid a big price for failing to unite and motivate these voters in November.
Preventing a replay of those three elections was the ultimate goal of the meeting at the Pressler ranch. But the organizers also hoped to show the party the best way to win was still to listen to them.