The two dozen pastors gathered in a dreary room adorned with balloons and needlepoint texts from Scripture, deep within the cavernous Greenwell Springs Baptist Church. They had come from as far as Texas and Colorado to this red-brick building on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La., at the behest of Tony Perkins, one of America's most influential evangelical Christian leaders. And their host made clear that the evening's guest of honor had his blessing. "I wouldn't invite just anybody to my church," Perkins said as he introduced Rick Santorum.
It was the Sunday before the Louisiana primary on March 24. The pastors, wearing hand-printed name tags, listened as the Republican presidential candidate delivered his pitch. "If this is about management of the economy, we're going to lose," he said. "What we need to do in this country is to rebuild that culture of life and rebuild that culture of marriage and families."
Few politicians would argue that managing the economy isn't the election's signal issue. But Santorum's message at private conclaves like the gathering at Greenwell Springs has been essential to his success. Although he emerged as Mitt Romney's chief rival, the former Pennsylvania Senator still has no pollster, a meager bank account and a paid staff that would fill just a handful of church pews. His hopes of winning the nomination may be dwindling, but his ramshackle campaign has mounted the party's strongest insurgent challenge since Ronald Reagan nearly toppled Gerald Ford in 1976.
The force propelling Santorum to these victories is his devout and driven network of social conservatives. Religious leaders, antiabortion activists, homeschooling advocates and Christian businessmen have rallied to his cause with a passion that Romney's followers can't match. Guided by the likes of Perkins--who prodded the pastors at Greenwell Springs to urge their flocks to vote--they have staged living-room phone banks, hired tour buses, launched Facebook campaigns and tuned in to an upstart online radio show, We Pick Rick, that broadcasts three nights a week. "It is a true grassroots campaign, where the office is a kitchen table," says Phil Burress, an evangelical activist in Ohio. Shelley Ahlersmeyer, who oversees Santorum's grassroots coalitions from her home in rural Indiana, attributes much of his success to this zeal. "We are the campaign," she says.
The results kept surprising the political world. Santorum won contests in Colorado and Mississippi without ever leading in a public poll, and he trailed in seven consecutive Alabama polls before taking the state by 5 points. One likely explanation: Santorum's voters are more fired up than Romney's and thus more likely to vote on primary day.