January 13th, 2012
12:33 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) - Does a group of more than 150 conservative leaders stand a chance of reshaping the race to the White House? There are reasons for doubt.
Members of the group, which met at a Texas ranch Friday and Saturday, voted Saturday to back GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum. Many of the conservative leaders are well past their primes, with declining influence, and the nominating contest is already pretty far along.
The news media has made much of the meeting, which includes such well-known evangelicals as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference president Rev. Samuel Rodriguez and former presidential candidate Gary Bauer.
The South Carolina primary - a key test of conservative strength - comes just a week after the Texas meeting.
“Some of these evangelical leaders are not as active as they once were in politics and the evangelical movement has changed a little overtime,” says John Green, a political scientist from the University of Akron. “Where this group could have an effect is if they coalesced around one candidate and then helped to provide resources.”
Boots on the ground, phone lists, robocalls, and even the possibility of an evangelical super PAC could move the needle for a candidate, Green said. But the time for such resource-intensive mobilization is growing thin.
"These kind of meetings can have some impact if they can come to a clear resolution six months ago," says Gary Marx, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a national conservative group. "It’s very difficult for a newly formed consensus to turn into strong action in such a short period of time."
Another factor that could dampen the impact of the group meeting in Texas: attendees have already signed up with different candidates.
Bauer is supporting Rick Santorum. American Family Association founder Don Wildmon is backing Newt Gingrich. Other participants have endorsed Rick Perry or Mitt Romney.
"Is it possible that a consensus could be reached? I think it’s possible but not probable," said Perkins, prior to the Saturday vote. " I think what most likely will occur is you will see individual leaders endorse a candidate.”
Bauer says the coalition that's meeting in Texas has been getting together regularly for more than five years around various issues. But there's not always agreement.
"We tried to unite around one candidate in 2008 and were unsuccessful,” he says. “I am skeptical that out of [this meeting] will come any type of consensus.”
Romney is the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination but many social conservative leaders aren't exactly gaga over him.
“I do think there is great concern Romney is not the most conservative candidate in the race,” says Perkins, who helped organize the Texas meeting. “There’s a desire to see a candidate that’s truly conservative and can energize conservative voters and win the general election.
"There will be a discussion about that," he says. "Is there a candidate a consensus could form around that could carry the conservative banner?”
Some who are attending the Texas powwow are frustrated that evangelicals are dividing their influence among a handful of Republican candidates, creating an easier path for Romney.
News of the meeting, happening about halfway between Houston and Austin, leaked out last week and framed the event as part of a search for an anti-Romney candidate. Meeting organizers vehemently deny that notion.
“We’re not having an anti-Romney meeting - it’s not true,” Paul Pressler, a former judge who is hosting the meeting on his ranch, told CNN. “That’s a figment of the imagination of the press. We’re having an anti-Obama meeting.”
Pressler served in the Texas state legislature as a Democrat until 1993. He has said that “the Democratic Party left me.”
Bauer said that if meeting was aimed to stop a particular candidate, "I would focus my attention on Ron Paul, not Mitt Romney.”
But Perkins said the leaders may come to the conclusion it is time to press certain candidates to leave the race, which he said was a lesson of the 2008 race, when Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson split some evangelical votes in South Carolina and elsewhere.
“There could be a consensus arrived at that would maybe nudge candidates to maybe step out before it’s too late," Perkins said.
Supporters of various candidates are expected to talk up their picks at the meeting, focusing on where each candidate stands economic and social issues.
But some conservative Christian leaders oppose the very idea of the meeting.
“I think group think isn’t the way to go,” Bob Vander Plaats, President of the conservative Family Leader in Iowa said. “We have too many pro-family candidates in the race. If we dilute our support Romney will win.”
Vander Plaats personally endorsed Santorum. Although he received an invitation Pressler's ranch event, he won’t be attending.
“The leaders who lead these organizations know what to do,” he said.
“From my angle, leaders are called to lead," he added. "I don’t think they should be watching the dance play out from the sidelines.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.