CHARLESTON, S.C. — Rick Perry, trying to rescue his presidential campaign in South Carolina, got some unwelcome news Saturday from back home, where influential evangelical leaders threw their support behind former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council and spokesman for the group that assembled in Texas this weekend, said in a conference call that the decision to go with Santorum was reached after three rounds of balloting and a “passionate time of discussion.”

“There emerged a strong consensus around Rick Santorum as the preferred candidate of this group,” Perkins said. He said the group was concerned about Perry's ability to win even though the governor "fit the bill" when it came to analyzing his record and positions on conservative issues.

"We’re in Texas. There are some very passionate supporters of Rick Perry," Perkins said. “There was some concern because of, kind of the stumbles that he had getting into the race." Ultimately the group concluded that the barriers standing between Perry and the GOP nomination were "too hard to overcome." 

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All the major candidates except Jon Huntsman had supporters on hand to argue for their candidate, Perkins said. The group met at the Central Texas ranch of a former Texas judge, Paul Pressler. Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said no one from Perry’s presidential campaign appeared at the gathering in Brenham. She did not have any information on who might have played the role of advocate for him at the meeting.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, was one of the Perry backers who spoke at the meeting. So did Texas pastor Rick Scarborough, one knowledgeable source said.

It was a far cry from an earlier meeting of evangelical leaders held in Texas, at the ranch of mega donor James Leininger in August. Perry was at the top of his game then, seemingly within grasp of locking up conservative support and emerging as the most likely rival of front-runner Mitt Romney.

Now Perry is making a last-ditch effort in South Carolina, crisscrossing the state in a frenetic attempt to turn it around. That seems increasingly unlikely. A new Reuters/Ipsos online poll shows Romney breaking away from the pack. Perry is standing next to dead last in the poll at 6 percent, only 3 points higher than Huntsman, who had spent hardly any time campaigning here before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. The most recently compiled RealClearPolitics polling average shows Perry hovering at 6.6 percent.

Perry walked away from a group of reporters in Georgetown, S.C., on Saturday afternoon when asked how he felt about the snub. His campaign had released a statement earlier in the day.

“Rick Perry is the most successful and consistent social, fiscal and Tea Party conservative in the race for the White House,” said Perry’s communications director, Ray Sullivan. “He is taking that conservative record and message to the voters of South Carolina and is confident they will make the right decision.”

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Perry spoke at Page’s Okra Grill on Saturday morning, calling himself the only real “outsider” in a race thick with insiders from Wall Street and Washington. When news broke of the slap from Brenham, Perry was preparing to make his pitch to undecided voters at a forum held by unsuccessful 2008 GOP candidate Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor.

Perry, who arrived in Greenville on Sunday, is halfway through the longest uninterrupted stretch of campaigning since he announced his presidential campaign. He is scheduled to stump for votes during a walk down Main Street in Georgetown on Saturday afternoon, and he is preparing to debate his rivals on national television, broadcast from the Palmetto State, on Monday and Thursday.

The governor is not expected to return home until the state holds its crucial primary, the first in the South, on Jan. 21.

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