MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — On Sunday, the Republican presidential campaign stopped to pray.
Rick Santorum and Rick Perry attended a prayer breakfast in Myrtle Beach, Newt Gingrich confessed his personal “baggage” at a church in North Charleston, and Jon Huntsman attended services in Charleston.
Their appearances were aimed squarely at evangelical or born-again Christian voters, who made up 60 percent of primary voters four years ago and who remain divided among several candidates. Rallying much of that vote could help one candidate catch Mitt Romney, who leads in the polls.
Santorum, in particular, looked for a surge of support after a weekend endorsement from a group of national religious and social conservatives.
“It’s a very big deal,” the former senator from Pennsylvania said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We feel very, very good that with their support were going to get a network of grass-roots leaders here, riding up behind us and giving us that surge that we need coming down to this last week.”
Sen. John McCain, who won the 2008 primary, called the endorsement a setback for Romney, whom he supports. “It is a hit,” McCain said on CNN. “Let’s be very honest. There is a very strong evangelical movement in South Carolina, particularly inland.”
Regardless of movement leaders, candidates fanned out to make their appeal directly to voters.
“I know what the values are of South Carolina. I’ve spent a lot of time here,” Santorum told several hundred people at a prayer breakfast. “The question is, will the people of South Carolina vote their conscience. Quit compromising. Vote your conscience. … Speak as South Carolinians to a country that is looking for leadership and put someone in there, give someone the opportunity, to d o what’s necessary to heal this land.”
Perry told the same audience in Myrtle Beach about his faith.
“At age 14, I walked down that [church] aisle and gave my heart to Jesus Christ,” the governor of Texas said. “A few times, I tried to take it back, but God would never leave me alone.”
Perry urged attendees to pick a candidate who embodies their Christian ideals. “Who will be faithful to your values?” he said.
At the Cathedral of Praise in North Charleston, Gingrich spoke to a congregation of about 1,000 about his three marriages, a record that many voters cite as a reason they won’t vote for the former House speaker.
“I don’t come here today as a perfect person,” he said. “I don’t come here today without, I guess the advertisement is, baggage.”
He won admiring words — though not an endorsement — from church pastor Michael Lewis.
“Whoever you vote for I think you would have to attest that there’s a man who loves his country and who knows his country, and regardless who you vote for, he’s one of us,” Lewis said in his closing remarks.
Huntsman attended church Sunday in Charleston with former South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster.
Several South Carolina Republicans said it was a sign of how much the state is changing that it is welcoming two Mormons — Romney and Huntsman — and two Roman Catholics — Gingrich and Santorum.
“There’s been such an influx of population into the state…snowbirds that have retired here from the North or have gotten tired of dodging hurricanes in Florida,” said Mike Campbell, son of former Gov. Carroll Campbell, an architect of the state’s first-in-the-South primary.
“These are people who are more independent-leaning and not as far right leaning. You’ll always have a base of social conservatives and evangelicals. But this year it’s more important to all voters to figure out who is going to create a job for them that’s going to put food on the table and who’s going to reform taxes so they can keep more of their own money.”