GREENVILLE, S.C. -- The nation's first presidential primary doesn't begin for another day, but Rick Santorum's sights already are set on the conservative Palmetto State.
The former Pennsylvania senator has clocked 27 visits to South Carolina -- the most in the Republican presidential field. That tally grew again Sunday as he began a final push to turn his grass-roots work into support in the Jan. 21 primary.
That attention hasn't been without reason: Not only has South Carolina picked every GOP nominee since 1980, but the state's large number of evangelicals match his own profile well and could buoy his Iowa momentum.
"If South Carolina doesn't say we want a conservative on the ticket, we very well may not have one," Mr. Santorum told a gathering of the Greenville County Republican Party, urging them to "coalesce, don't divide."
Aiming to shore up support from that coveted demographic, the campaign unveiled a high-profile endorsement here: Christian conservative activist Gary Bauer threw his backing behind Mr. Santorum, comparing his fiscal and social stances to President Ronald Reagan.
"The senator knows, and you know, that our liberty comes from God," said Mr. Bauer, himself a former GOP presidential candidate. "The senator believes that if you're going to have a strong America, you've got to have strong families and strong values, and that you have to welcome all of our children into the world and protect them."
Mr. Bauer's announcement is the first of what is expected to be several endorsements for Mr. Santorum as attention shifts from Tuesday's New Hampshire primary to the country's first contest in the South.
Campaign aides said the support shows a trend of national conservative leaders joining the Santorum camp, pointing back to Iowa's Bob Vander Plaats offering his backing.
Keeping conservative voters, particularly evangelicals, from splintering among several candidates will be key for any candidate aiming to topple former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. A survey released Saturday from Public Policy Polling had Mr. Romney with 30 percent, followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 23 percent and Mr. Santorum at 19 percent.
In South Carolina, some key social conservative figures so far have remained on the sidelines.
U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), who endorsed Mr. Romney in 2008 and backed a number of conservative insurgents in 2010, has stayed mum. So has Bob Jones III, chancellor of the Greenville-based fundamentalist Christian college that bears his family's name.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Laura Olson is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.