Under pressure, Santorum huddles with conservatives

Thu Apr 5, 2012 7:39pm EDT

1 of 5. Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum looks to his wife Karen before being introduced during the Bronze Elephant Presidential Candidate Forum at Byrnes High School in Duncan, South Carolina January 13, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Chris Keane

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Tumbling in the polls and under increasing pressure to abandon his White House campaign, Republican Rick Santorum huddled with conservative leaders and aides on Thursday to plot strategy.

Among the options on the table: a plan that would involve Newt Gingrich dropping out of the Republican race and backing Santorum in a late effort to unite conservatives and prevent Mitt Romney from clinching the party's presidential nomination.

The meeting, in a Virginia suburb of Washington, came two days after Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, won three primaries to widen his lead over Santorum in the state-by-state race for the Republican nomination.

Santorum's campaign had planned to take a long weekend break for Easter, but Thursday's meeting was called after the former Pennsylvania senator was approached by a group of unidentified conservatives "to assess the path moving forward," a source in Santorum's campaign said.

Discussing Santorum's exit from the race was not the point of the meeting, the source said, adding that the talks were "by no stretch of the imagination" aimed at persuading Santorum to step aside and leave Romney to concentrate on the November 6 election against Democratic President Barack Obama.

However, the talks did include the question of whether former House speaker Gingrich would stay in the race or drop out and back fellow conservative Santorum.

"There's discussion about what Speaker Gingrich's role will be in this," Santorum spokeswoman Alice Stewart told MSNBC.

Gingrich has scaled back his campaign after his plan to make an impact in southern primaries largely failed, but a spokesman said he would not quit and hand over his party delegates to Santorum.

A Republican candidate needs 1,144 delegates required to win the nomination at the Republican convention in August.

CNN estimates that Romney has 657 delegates, over 200 more than the combined total for Santorum and Gingrich, who has polled in the single digits in recent major primaries.

"Even if Gingrich did drop out, given how poorly he's fared in the last couple of contests I don't know how much that would really help Santorum," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.

Santorum is counting on making a statement in his home state of Pennsylvania, which holds its primary on April 24.

However, a Public Policy Polling survey released Thursday indicated that for the first time, Romney led Santorum in Pennsylvania.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, defeated Santorum soundly in Washington D.C., Wisconsin and Maryland primaries this week.

Adding to the pressure on Santorum, prominent Republican strategist Karl Rove called him a "fading candidate" in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece and said Romney had almost wrapped up the nomination.

ANOTHER LOSS IN PENNSYLVANIA?

As Santorum takes several days off the campaign trail to work out strategy and celebrate Easter, political analysts were questioning whether he is willing to face the prospect of losing his home state six years after an election in which he lost his Senate seat by 18 percentage points.

"It's clear that Santorum also has his eye on (running for president in) 2016, and the question is whether he wants to bow out now or go to Pennsylvania," O'Connell said.

Romney leads in the state by 42 percent to 37 percent ahead of the primary in three weeks, according to the PPP poll. Romney campaigned in Pennsylvania on Thursday.

The gap in polls between the two could increase in the coming weeks as the Romney campaign and a pro-Romney "Super PAC" hit the state with TV ads portraying Santorum as a backer of big government spending during his time in the Senate.

"Mitt Romney has a great chance to deliver a final crushing blow to (Santorum's) campaign on April 24th," said Dean Debnam, president of the polling firm.

Romney received a backhanded compliment this week when Obama criticized him by name over planned budget cuts, signaling that the White House is now treating him as the presumptive Republican nominee.

Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney PAC, has spent $408,000 on TV advertising in the northeastern market that overlaps Pennsylvania and four other states that are voting the same day, PAC spokeswoman Brittany Gross said.

The Red White and Blue Fund, a PAC that backs Santorum, has not reported any spending in Pennsylvania. Santorum acknowledged last weekend that April would be tough for his campaign because there are contests in several states where Romney is likely to do well.

The month would resemble "running a marathon breathing through a swizzle stick," Santorum said.

"I know they are pretty low on funds," a Republican source said of Santorum's campaign.

The source speculated that raising money might be one of the points Santorum is talking about with conservatives.

In the Wall Street Journal piece, Rove shot down Santorum's argument that his campaign will recover if it can just hold on until May when more conservative states such as Kentucky, Texas and West Virginia will vote.

Exit polls from Wisconsin show Santorum losing to Romney among evangelicals, very conservative voters and Tea Party supporters, all of which have been regarded as Santorum's natural constituency.

Rove said Santorum still would be way behind in the delegate race even if he did well in May, and brushed aside the former senator's claim that a prolonged nomination race would energize Republicans ahead of the November election.

"That's the argument of a desperate candidate," Rove wrote. "More and more Republicans think such a blood-letting would severely set back the cause of defeating Barack Obama."

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Lily Kuo and Alina Selyukh; Editing by David Lindsey and Jackie Frank)

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