Rick Santorum, who rose in the polls thanks to enthusiastic support from Christian conservatives, faced pressure on Sunday from a key Republican evangelical to end his increasingly long-shot White House bid.
Richard Land, a top official with the powerful Southern Baptist Convention, urged Santorum to abandon the race and throw his support to frontrunner Mitt Romney to increase the Republicans’ chances of defeating Democrat US President Barack Obama in November.
“Rick’s a good friend. I like Rick a lot,” Land told CBS’ Face the Nation program on Sunday.
However, he said: “As his friend I would say to him: ‘You know, you ought to seriously consider leaving the race now.’”
Conservative ministers helped boost Santorum’s dark-horse candidacy back when he trailed much of the rest of the Republican pack, after formally embracing his strong anti-abortion, faith-and-family message.
Evangelical leaders held a meeting in Texas in January at which they endorsed Santorum, a Catholic conservative, as the Republican contender whose faith-infused values most closely paralleled their own.
However, after their candidate failed to pick up sufficient steam to seize the nomination, Christian conservatives met again with Santorum last week to strategize about how they should proceed going forward.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, trounced Santorum in primaries held last week in Washington, as well as the states of Wisconsin and Maryland, lending additional credence to his case that he will be the party’s inevitable pick.
Land told CBS that the tea leaves appeared not to favor Santorum — although he left open the possibility that he could be a strong contender for a future Republican party nomination.
“In eight years, he’ll be three years younger than Romney is now,” Land said.
He added, however, that “running for president is a very personal decision, when to get out is a very personal decision and he’s going to have to make that.”
Ebbing support among Christian leaders would come at a bad time for Santorum, who has denied rumors that he is plotting his exit from the race to avoid what could be an embarrassing loss in his home state of Pennsylvania.
Amid the increasingly long odds facing Santorum, there has been a rising chorus of voices in the party calling for him — as well as fellow contenders US Representative Ron Paul and former US House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich — to bow out and coalesce around Romney’s candidacy.
Gingrich on Sunday said in a television interview that he was determined to stay in the race, but mostly because he hopes to influence the Republican Party platform drawn up at the convention. All hopes, Gingrich said, of being able to overtake Romney for the nomination are over.
“I think you have to be realistic, given the size of his organization, given the number of primaries he’s won. He is far and away the most likely Republican nominee,” Gingrich told Fox News Sunday.
“And if he does get [the nomination] I’ll support him. I’ll do everything I can this fall to help him defeat Obama,” he said.
A Public Policy Polling survey shows Romney leading Santorum 42 percent to 37 percent in Pennsylvania, a precipitous fall-off in support from just last month, when Romney had 25 percent support against 43 percent for Santorum.
Romney also holds a commanding lead in the race to be the first Republican contender to collect the 1,144 delegates needed to win the party’s primary nomination. A party convention to be held in Florida in August will decide who the Republican presidential candidate will be.