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US evangelicals back Rick Santorum ahead of South Carolina primary

The support came after about 150 influential Christian conservative leaders met in Texas in hopes of rallying their forces around one candidate before the January 21 vote in South Carolina.

WASHINGTON // Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has received a powerful endorsement as top US evangelical leaders endorsed his White House bid ahead of the South Carolina primary.

The support came after about 150 influential Christian conservative leaders met in Texas in hopes of rallying their forces around one candidate before the January 21 vote in the state where evangelicals and social conservatives make up 60 per cent of the Republican electorate.

Here are the results of a South Carolina poll released Friday by Public Policy Polling (PPP): frontrunner Mitt Romney, 29 per cent of the vote; former House speaker Newt Gingrich, 24 per cent; libertarian candidate Ron Paul, 15 per cent; Mr Santorum, 14 per cent; Texas Governor Rick Perry, 5 per cent; former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, 1 per cent.

In Texas, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and one of the organizers of the evangelicals meeting, said Mr Santorum, a former US senator from Pennsylvania, had received 85 out of 114 possible votes, thus securing the backing of the group.

The endorsement includes financial support from key religious conservative groups, Mr Perkins said, without offering specifics.

"You will see these organizations engaging openly on his behalf - especially in the state of South Carolina," Mr Perkins told reporters. Mr Santorum finished a close second in the Iowa caucuses earlier this month, losing to Mr Romney by eight votes. He was tied for fourth place with Mr Gingrich in New Hampshire.

Many social conservatives perceive Mr Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, as a moderate and question his commitment to priority issues such as opposition to abortion and gay marriages.

But not everyone is convinced the endorsement will help Mr Santorum defeat Mr Romney.

The Reverend Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, believes the summit has exposed the fault lines among religious conservatives.

"The real division is between the idealists who are looking for the right president, anybody but Romney, and the pragmatists who don't want to cut off their access to the next president, who they think will be Romney," Jeffress said.

Meanwhile, Mr Romney's team hit back Saturday at President Barack Obama's campaign for portraying him as a jobs destroyer.

Mr Romney sought to turn the tables on Mr Obama, with a senior campaign aide saying the candidate's business experience trumped Mr Obama's background as a "community organizer."

"No amount of speechmaking will persuade the American people that his economic record has been anything other than an unmitigated disaster," Romney's policy director Lanhee Chen said of Mr Obama in a statement.

Attacks by Obama aides on Mr Romney's economic credentials have added to similar salvos from Romney's Republican rivals over his 15-year tenure at equity firm Bain Capital and disputed claims that he created 100,000 jobs.

But his opponents have repeatedly accused him of firing thousands of workers while securing millions in profits for himself.

Mr Chen laid the economic blame at Mr Obama's door, stating that the number of Americans unemployed, underemployed or no longer seeking work had risen from 22 million people to nearly 24 million during the Obama administration.

The Romney campaign also Saturday released a video playing up the former Massachusetts governor's pro-life stance on abortion, one of the hot-button issues on which opponents have accused him of being a flip-flopper.