Jerry Helton, pastor of the House of Prayer church in rural Blairsville, Georgia, hasn’t decided who he’ll vote for in tomorrow’s Republican presidential primary. He does know who he won’t support: Mitt Romney.
“Mitt being a conservative, that’s a concept a lot of people are still getting used to,” said Helton, who oversees a congregation of 700 people in the heart of the Chattahoochee National Forest near the Tennessee border.
While Romney works to cement his lead in the overall race, in the South the contest has centered on a duel between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Both men, fighting to emerge as the alternative to Romney, are counting on Southern evangelical voters like Helton to keep their presidential aspirations alive.
In Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma, which cast ballots on Super Tuesday, Christian evangelicals are likely to make up a majority of voters. In 2008, self-identified evangelicals constituted more than 60 percent of Republican primary voters in Georgia, exit polls showed. In Tennessee and Oklahoma, more than 7 in 10 were evangelicals.
“The socially conservative message is going to go over well in the Southern states that have not been excited about the perceived front-runner,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a group opposed to abortion rights and gay marriage. “They just don’t think Romney’s conservative.”
“This is God’s country, baby,” said Denny Acres, a self- employed computer consultant from Dalton, Georgia, who supports Santorum. “We like conservative ideas.”
And while Santorum’s comments that President Barack Obama follows “some phony theology” and the late President John F. Kennedy’s call for separation of church and state made him want to “throw up” may make some voters uncomfortable, they help conservative evangelicals identify with him, said Olson.