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HOUSTON – As the once-crowded GOP primary race thins out, Christian conservatives are getting serious about how they can be a factor.

Over the weekend, hundreds of the biggest names in the movement met here – on short notice – to see if a consensus could be reached on a course of action.

Personally, I didn’t think it could be done.

But more than 100 activists from around the country – including James Dobson, Don Wildmon, Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, Phyllis Schlafly – got together and accomplished just that.

The meeting was marked by prayer, with men and women on their knees in the rustic meeting room in the ranch house of Judge Paul Pressler. A New York Times photographer camped out on the road leading to the ranch, but was kept at bay by local deputies who provided security for the event.

After listening to impassioned appeals from representatives of the campaigns of Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum, attendees were polled to see if a consensus candidate could be found among the leaders of organizations, major donors and grass roots activists.

Three ballots were taken.

Rick Santorum won all of them – but by the third he emerged as the consensus candidate, winning 85 votes to Newt Gingrich’s 29. Besides Santorum and Gingrich, Rick Perry had significant support in the first round, but was eliminated with a third-place showing.

“Rick Santorum has consistently articulated the issues that are of concern to conservatives, both the economic and the social, and has woven those into a very solid platform,” said Perkins, who served as the group’s media spokesman. “And he has a record of stability. … He’s reliable.”

Three major issues guided the group: repeal of the health-care law that was passed in 2010, the national debt and government spending and social conservative values.

Prior to the start of the two-day meeting, there was widespread skepticism expressed about the ability of the group to reach a consensus. Many of the attendees were committed to specific candidates already, while others were open to finding the best choice among Gingrich, Perry and Santorum. I’m convinced the objective could not have been found without sincere prayer and deep reflection from those involved.

The attendees were all people of strong convictions and no shortage of opinions. But they came together in the spirit of seeking God’s direction – and I think most believe they found it.

I’m certain the decision wasn’t based on the most persuasive speech-making.

I’m certain the decision wasn’t based on political expediency.

I’m certain the decision wasn’t based on which candidate could raise the most money.

I’m certain the decision wasn’t based on what the latest polls revealed.

I have to tell you, this was one of the most unusual meetings I have ever attended – and one of the most rewarding.

It was less a political convention than a prayer meeting.

The effects of this unified support for Santorum are not likely to be felt immediately – in time to help propel his campaign in South Carolina. It is likely to take weeks before the impact manifests itself in donations, troops on the ground and higher poll numbers.

But it will be interesting to see how big this development is for Santorum. There’s no question those in attendance represented constituencies in the millions. But is it too little, too late to stop what appears to be a Mitt Romney political freight train headed for the GOP nomination?

Will the vote persuade Rick Perry to pack it in for 2012?

Will Santorum be able to capitalize on the support to emerge as the clear alternative to Romney and Paul?

Did this event mark the rebirth of the conservative Christian coalition that was so powerful and influential in the 1980s?

Time will tell.

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