Rick Santorum, who rose in the polls thanks to enthusiastic support from Christian conservatives, faced pressure Sunday from a key Republican evangelical to end his increasingly long-shot White House bid.
Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention urged him to abandon the race and throw his support to frontrunner Mitt Romney to increase Republicans’ chances of defeating Barack Obama in November.
“Rick’s a good friend. I like Rick a lot,” Land told CBS “Face the Nation” program on Sunday.
But, Land 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 back in January at which they endorsed Santorum, a Catholic conservative, as the Republican contender whose faith-infused values most closely paralleled their own.
But 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, DC, Wisconsin and Maryland, lending additional credence to his case that he will be the party’s inevitable pick to run against Obama.
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,” said Land.
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,” Land told CBS.
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 Congressman Ron Paul and former House speaker Newt Gingrich — to bow out and coalesce around Romney’s candidacy.
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.
Santorum, who has acknowledged that Pennsylvania is must-win for him, faces primaries in four more Romney-friendly states on April 24: New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware.
His career ended in Pennsylvania six years ago when he was badly beaten in his bid for re-election by Democratic challenger Bob Casey by some 18 percentage points.
Meanwhile, Santorum has taken a few days from the campaign trail to observe Easter holiday and to be at the hospital with his youngest daughter Bella, who suffers from a severe genetic disorder.
Bella was born in 2008 with Trisomy 18, a rare defect in which a baby has an extra chromosome that results in abnormal development of the brain and major organs. It has meant that the tot periodically has had to be rushed to the hospital for care, most recently on Friday.
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