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Social conservative leaders raised nearly $1.8 million at a meeting in Houston, bringing together many of those who met in January to coalesce around Rick Santorum in the Republican primaries.

More than 200 social conservative leaders met last weekend for a fundraising reception for Santorum and held a strategy meeting with the candidate, Politicoreported. The event was co-hosted by Bob Fischer, a South Dakota businessman, and conservative activists Rebecca Hagelin, Richard Viguerie, and Tim Lefever. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins also attended the gathering.

Many of the large contributions will go to the Red, White & Blue Fund, a super PAC that supports Santorum's candidacy. Legally known as independent expenditure-only committees, super PACs provide a vehicle for outside groups to funnel money into a campaign. Unlike traditional campaign finance, super PACs cannot give directly to candidates. Instead, they provide independent money for their own ads and mobilization efforts. In essence, wealthy donors can give as much money as they want to support or oppose a candidate.

In the Republican primaries, each of the major candidates has an affiliated super PAC. Mitt Romney is supported by Restore Our Future ($36.8 million raised). Newt Gingrich receives support from Winning Our Future ($13.1 million). Super PACs supporting Ron Paul (Endorse Liberty) and Rick Santorum (Red, White & Blue) are smaller, with less than $7 million each.

Red, White & Blue is a prime example of how conservatives are influencing the campaign through the donations of a few wealthy conservative activists. Its major contributor is Foster Friess, a fund manager who credits his multi-billion dollar business success to his 1978 born-again experience. Friess and Red, White & Blue also gave $150,000 to a super PAC run by leaders of the Iowa grassroots group Family Leader, according to the Des Moines Register. "Leaders for Families" was created to promote Family Leader president Bob Vander Plaats's endorsement of Santorum. Half of the contributions for Leaders for Families came directly from the Red, White & Blue Fund and $50,000 came from Friess.

Leaders for Families spent $231,376 in Iowa and New Hampshire promoting Santorum, according to disclosure reports, but it did not designate a state for $92,535 in spending, according to the Register.

Another major donor to Red, White & Blue is John Templeton Jr., son of philanthropist John Templeton Sr. who created the John Templeton Foundation. Templeton is a long-time supporter of Santorum, dating back to his Senate campaigns, and has given nearly $300,000 to Red, White & Blue Fund.

Critics of the rise in super PACs suggest that major contributors may be able to shape the political agenda by raising the profile of a candidate who will actively support a contributor's causes. For instance, many news outlets have spotlighted the role of Sheldon Adelson—one of the wealthiest men in America and the major financial supporter of Newt Gingrich—whose family has given more than $10 million to Gingrich's super PAC. Adelson's support of Gingrich stems from friendship, ideology, and a shared support for Israel, according to reports. Adelson is a Zionist who opposes concessions to Palestinians, supports Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and agrees with Gingrich's view that the Palestinians are "an invented people."

Romney's super PAC includes several million dollar contributors, most of whom are hedge fund managers or others who have made their money in the financial sector. Paul Singer, one of Romney's million dollar donors, is a billionaire who was active in New York's move to allow same-sex marriage. Romney currently supports a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman.

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