OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Within an hour of Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire signing a same-sex-marriage bill into law Monday, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was meeting with a group of gay-marriage foes at a church minutes away, offering a message of support for their efforts to repeal the law.
Visiting Washington ahead of the March 3 GOP caucuses, he lived up to his social-conservative image, speaking to more than 100 pastors and other "values voters" in a closed-door meeting at Calvary Chapel before heading to the state Capitol to meet with Republican legislators.
Santorum planned a public rally in Tacoma on Monday night.
"I told them to keep up the fight, that this is an important issue for our families; it is an important issue for religious liberty," the former Pennsylvania senator said of his meeting with church leaders, during a news conference Monday afternoon.
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Arthur Banks, pastor of Eastside Baptist Church in Tacoma, said he appreciated Santorum's visit and that the group was determined "to stand for right and righteousness against what we feel is an injustice because God's word speaks against it -- same-sex marriages."
Santorum said it doesn't make sense to have each state define marriage its own way and that he would push for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
"We have a serious issue about trying to get moms and dads to marry and stay together," he said.
"I don't see this as encouraging that. I think that at least from my perspective it tends to water down marriage instead of encouraging men and women to form healthy marriages, and that to me should be the objective of the government because that is in the best interests of our society."
Santorum lashed out at gay-marriage backers for insulting those who feel differently, taking exception to a recent 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that struck down California's ban on same-sex marriage.
"It's pretty intolerant to suggest that people have no rational reason to be in favor of this institution that has been the bulwark of society for 235 years," Santorum said, calling for both sides of the marriage debate to "be respectful."
In its ruling, a three-judge 9th Circuit panel said California's ban on gay marriage "serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California."
Santorum has been riding a national wave of popularity among conservative Republican voters looking for an alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Until recently, Santorum hadn't been organizing in Washington, but his campaign has shown signs of life in the run-up to the state's caucuses, and he is the first candidate to visit.
Arizona and Michigan are the next two states to hold nominating contests before Washington's March 3 caucuses.
Meanwhile, the Romney campaign released a list of more than 100 Washington politicians and other endorsers Monday and held a conference call with reporters to argue that Romney has the best shot at defeating President Barack Obama.
"There is no question in my mind that he is the most electable of the Republican candidates," said Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, R-Spokane, who is Romney's state campaign chairwoman.
The Human Rights Campaign, a national organization that works to promote gay and lesbian civil rights, blasted Santorum's opposition to gay marriage.
"Rick Santorum's sideshow is purely a political maneuver designed to draw attention to a campaign that is dramatically out of step with the values of mainstream Americans," the organization said in a news release issued Monday.
Santorum was greeted with loud applause when he walked into the House Republican caucus Monday for a quick question-and-answer session with members -- even though many of them have endorsed Romney.
House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, said he supports Romney and that the chat with Santorum didn't change his mind.
Romney at this point has broader appeal, DeBolt said, but he added that Santorum "was pretty dynamic today, so I'm going to watch and see what happens."
Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, another Romney supporter, also said he was impressed with Santorum.
"He talks my lingo," Zarelli said. "I endorsed Romney, but I would not be disheartened if he (Santorum) was the candidate as well."
Republican lawmakers in both the House and Senate said Santorum mostly stuck to policy issues ranging from poverty to agriculture. The issue of gay marriage did not come up in their discussions, they said.
"He did discuss marriage and the importance of marriage, and I concurred with everything he said. But I would say marriage should be for all," said Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, one of two House Republicans who voted for the gay-marriage bill.
Asked if she could support Santorum, Walsh said she would need to hear more about his platform, "and I would hope that he might be inclined listen to some of the arguments" around gay marriage.