POLITICS
01/10/2012 02:56 pm ET | Updated Jan 10, 2012

Santorum Wasted Time In 'Dead Ground' Of New Hampshire, Says Evangelical Leader

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- A prominent Southern Baptist leader who has voiced support for Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum knocked the former senator for spending most of the last week campaigning in the Granite State rather than focusing on South Carolina.

"I think he's made a mistake in going to New Hampshire. I don't know when social conservatives are going to understand that New Hampshire is dead ground for them," Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in a phone interview.

"The last social conservative to do well in New Hampshire is Ronald Reagan," Land said, arguing that Santorum "should have gone straight to South Carolina."

Santorum came to New Hampshire one week ago, riding a huge wave of momentum after his near-win in Iowa. But he was taken off message almost immediately by questions at town hall meetings about gay marriage and other social issues, which highlighted his staunch conservative views in a state that is more moderate and has a primary electorate with a large slice of independent voters.

Santorum has defended his approach to campaigning, which has been a stark contrast to Mitt Romney's highly controlled events and to the former Massachusetts governor's method of moving quickly past questioners who disagree with him, rather than engaging them in conversation.

In an interview with The Huffington Post's Howard Fineman this week, Santorum said he has received positive feedback from "people all over the country" about a Hollis, N.H. event where he talked about gay marriage.

"They told me they were amazed at my demeanor talking with those people who disagreed with you. 'You had a civil discussion about really tough and heartfelt issues and boy, why isn't American politics like this any more?'" Santorum said.

But Santorum's momentum has stalled in the polls, and he is now fighting with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) for fourth place in the New Hampshire primary behind Romney, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was on the verge of dropping out of the race after his fifth place finish in Iowa a week ago, bypassed New Hampshire and has spent the past few days in the Palmetto State, getting a head start on the other candidates ahead of the Jan. 21 primary.

But Land, who indicated last week that evangelical leaders will likely coalesce around Santorum if he continues to do well through South Carolina, said that he still thinks Gingrich and Perry are fatally flawed.

"It would appear to me that Santorum has got fewer drawbacks and more fixable drawbacks than Perry or Gingrich," Land said. "Perry, you know, in the dictionary, under the phrase you only have one chance to make a first impression, there's a picture of Rick Perry. In this election cycle anyway, he's not going to be able to overcome the goofs and the gaffes."

"Everybody acknowledges that Gingrich is a really bright guy who knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. But the man's got freight, not baggage," Land added.

Land would not confirm that he is attending a gathering of evangelical leaders this Friday night and Saturday morning at the Texas ranch of Paul Pressler, a former state appeals court judge and prominent Southern Baptist. But a person with direct knowledge of the gathering said that Land's name is on the list. Also on the list are Focus on the Family's James Dobson, American Values President Gary Bauer, who has already endorsed Santorum, American Family Association founder Donald Wildmon, Rabbi Daniel Lapin and a few others.

An evangelical leader sympathetic to Romney said that the gathering comes too late in the primary process.

"These folks (most of whom I know) should have organized a year ago if they weren't happy with the options. The fact that they would try in mid-January is indicative of the lack of organization, influence, and ability to build consensus, in my view. Some, if not many, will come around to Romney I think," the evangelical said.

Santorum, however, stressed that the primary's new rules and drawn out calendar mean there is still plenty of time for a Romney alternative to emerge.

"The idea that the first two or three primaries are going to decide this race is just ridiculous. We've got a long way to go," Santorum said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "The delegate race is going to be a long way to come."

"We separated ourselves in Iowa," he said. "I'm hopeful that having spent no money here in New Hampshire, having spent five days campaigning ... if we can finish in the pack there, that just shows you that we're the candidate that the grassroots conservatives are looking for as the alternative."

ALL-ALSO-ON-HUFFPOST

CONVERSATIONS