By Samuel P. Jacobs
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - These are desperate times for Newt Gingrich.
But this is the audience he's been waiting for: South Carolina's evangelical Christians, who he hopes will rescue his flagging bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
His message to them is direct and urgent: Christians are under attack, and Republicans shouldn't trust Mitt Romney to always oppose abortion.
"We will not tolerate a speech dictatorship in this country against Christianity," the former House speaker told a crowd of 300 in Rock Hill, South Carolina on Wednesday, railing against what he has called government intrusions on Catholic charities and other religious organizations.
Gingrich is one of three conservatives - along with former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Texas governor Rick Perry - trying to rally evangelicals here to vote as a group in South Carolina's January 21 primary and slow down Romney's rush to the nomination.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has won the first two contests in the nomination process, in Iowa and New Hampshire, and has led recent polls here.
But South Carolina - where two-thirds of Republican voters told pollsters in 2008 that they attend church once a week and seven in 10 said they believed abortion should be illegal - could be a tougher venue for Romney.
Despite Romney's front-runner status, many conservatives aren't sold on him because of his record in relatively liberal Massachusetts, where he once supported abortion rights.
Gingrich, under fire from some fellow Republicans for calling Romney a job killer for his time as a private equity executive, is also attacking Romney with the evangelical audience.
In South Carolina, Gingrich's campaign has begun airing TV ads that call Romney "pro-abortion," and telling voters that Romney - who says he now opposes the procedure - cannot be trusted to be reliably anti-abortion.
Gingrich, who is in his third marriage and is a converted Catholic, is wooing an evangelical electorate in which voters are struggling to decide which Republican candidate best speaks for them.
"Politicians are supposed to do the best for God and country," said James Black, 73, who attended a speech by Gingrich in Columbia on Thursday. "I'm looking and praying that God will tell me who to vote for."
Pastors here and across the South are facing similar questions in wrestling over whether to accept Romney, or push for an alternative they like better.
This weekend, some of the nation's most influential Christian leaders will gather at a ranch near Brenham, Texas, hoping to emerge united behind one candidate.
Brad Atkins, president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, expressed a frustration that no candidate in the Republican field represents the complete package for his followers.
"If you could take the articulation of the speaker, if you could take the backbone and tenacity of Rick Perry, the intellectual mind and philosophy of (Texas congressman) Ron Paul and then the youth of Santorum, you'd have the super candidate," Atkins said. "Instead, we've got four men who bring four different things to the table, and it's splintering the (conservative) vote."
ATTACKS ON ROMNEY DRAW FIRE
In a campaign that has been shaped by some conservatives' anxiety over Romney's superior organization and fundraising, Gingrich has been Romney's most vociferous critic.
The former speaker has called Romney a "liar" and mocked him as a "Massachusetts moderate."
Challenging Romney's views on abortion marks a change of focus for Gingrich, who spent much of the New Hampshire primary questioning the frontrunner's business career at Bain Capital, a private equity firm co-founded by Romney.
Gingrich, who finished a distant fourth in the January 10 vote, called Romney a job killer because Bain laid off thousands of workers after taking over their companies.
Some Republicans have called Gingrich's criticisms anti-capitalist, and against the values of the party.
But this week, there have been signs that Gingrich's assault on Romney's record on abortion also was displeasing some key Republicans.
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a Tea Party stalwart and the most influential political figure in the state, told a radio interviewer on Wednesday that Gingrich should drop the attack.
"I think it's fine to point out people's records, but the only way we're going to ever win the battle for life is to convince a lot of people that used to be pro-choice to be pro-life," DeMint said.
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond dismissed DeMint's criticism.
"He did welcome Mitt Romney to the pro-life tent," Hammond said of Gingrich. "And then (Romney) governed pro-abortion" in Massachusetts.
'LOOKING FOR AUTHENTICITY'
Gingrich's ability to connect with evangelical voters may hinge on whether they can stomach the well-publicized drama that has occurred in his personal life.
On Tuesday, two attendees at Gingrich events easily recounted Gingrich's complicated marital history. Gingrich divorced his first two wives and had an affair with a House staffer, Callista Bisek, who became his third wife 12 years ago.
The voters said they may compare Gingrich's personal background against the family life of Santorum, who came within eight votes of defeating Romney in Iowa.
"People are going to go for the guy who has been married 20-odd years and has seven kids," said David Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist and longtime DeMint ally.
Gingrich's evangelical supporters, such as Jim Garlow, a pastor of San Diego's Skyline Church, said Gingrich's support of traditional marriage and his anti-abortion voting record overshadow his messy personal life.
"No one defends his marital failures," Garlow said Thursday. "He doesn't. I don't, and nobody I know defends his personal failures."
Garlow will attend the meeting in Texas this weekend and hopes to convince his fellow church leaders that Gingrich is the right candidate.
Atkins, the Baptist pastor, said Gingrich's personal life and his propensity to own up to making mistakes could make him a more attractive candidate to his followers.
"People are looking for authenticity," Atkins said. "They are not looking for a robot politician."
On Thursday, Gingrich had former Oklahoma congressman J.C. Watts at his side to testify to his strengths as a leader.
Gingrich and Watts spent four years together in the House. Watts, a Baptist preacher, told Reuters that Gingrich is not the only candidate who has strayed from the straight and narrow.
"Even as a person of faith, if I'm going to look at baggage, I could show you things that would not reconcile with the Christian faith in all of them," Watts said. "Mitt Romney, supporting abortion, supporting same-sex marriages, putting into legislation that the state would fund abortion. (But) I'm not beating him up for that.
"I'm just saying, they all have stinky feet."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Walsh)