WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's struggles in Michigan are fueling speculation that Republicans might have to resort to a doomsday scenario and launch a frantic search for a 2012 savior at their nominating convention in late August.
Rare in the modern age of U.S. politics, a "brokered convention" could result in Republicans ditching their current crop of candidates and turning to someone else who they feel would have a better chance of defeating Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
How did Republicans get to this point? Romney's failure to get conservatives fully behind him and put down yet another challenger in the party - this time it's Rick Santorum - is causing angst in the party.
Many senior Republicans do not think Santorum, a social conservative caught up in the U.S. culture wars over issues like abortion and contraception, has a chance to beat Obama if he wins the party's presidential nomination.
When he ran for re-election as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania in 2006, Santorum lost by 18 percentage points. But, nevertheless, he is exposing Romney's weaknesses in Michigan, where Santorum leads polls ahead of the big Midwestern state's February 28 primary.
A Romney loss to Santorum in Michigan, the state where he was born and where his father was governor, would only intensify the talk about a weak Republican field and feed demands for someone else as the party's candidate to challenge Obama.
"It's hard for me to see how Romney rights the ship if he loses Michigan," said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. "There is no level of spin that can overcome that disaster."
Michigan will set the table for "Super Tuesday," the March 6 jackpot when 10 states hold Republican nominating contests. A loss for Romney in Michigan would raise serious doubts over whether he can rally enough support to have a big day on Super Tuesday and make a big move toward clinching the nomination.
The candidates are engaging in a state-by-state battle to become the Republican nominee. The party will officially pick a nominee at its August convention in Tampa, Florida.
Romney is the best financed and organized of the Republican candidates and long has been considered the likely nominee. But the former Massachusetts governor and private equity executive has failed so far to take control of the race.
Who would Republicans turn to if not Romney or Santorum? Think of two popular governors, Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey, or former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, or even U.S. congressman Paul Ryan, author of a budget plan popular with Republicans.
All four men turned down appeals to run for president earlier in the campaign but might be persuaded to jump in with enough arm-twisting.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, a champion of the conservative Tea Party movement, is making noises about being willing to "help" at a brokered convention. That notion sounds suspiciously like she would love to have her own name thrown into the mix, if even only as a kingmaker.
"We could be looking at a brokered convention," she told Fox Business Network on Wednesday. "Months from now, if that's the case, all bets are off as to who it will be willing to offer up themselves ... in service to their country. I would do whatever I could to help."
The Republican race could turn into a math problem. The nominee this year needs 1,144 nominating delegates to secure the nomination at the convention. Each state is allocated a certain number of delegates to the convention based on its population.
This year in many states, the delegate count is proportional to the vote they receive in a nominating contest, instead of winner-take-all. That means a candidate who does not come in first in a particular state could still pick up some delegates to the convention.
On Super Tuesday there is the potential for Romney and Santorum, along with the other two candidates Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, to split the delegates, making it harder for anyone to get to the magic number of 1,144 before Republicans pick their candidate in August.
South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint told CNN the way delegates are divided means "it could very well go to the convention."
Once the convention rolls around, the candidates could do some horse-trading to try to peel away delegates from their rivals and get to the magic number. But if that fails, then party regulars could try to draft someone else into the race.
The appeal of such a move for someone like Daniels or Christie would be that they would have to campaign for essentially only two months, September and October, and could end up in the White House or have some momentum looking ahead to the 2016 presidential race, when they might have a better shot.
While a brokered convention is an intriguing scenario, the odds are always against it.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato first raised the idea of a brokered convention back in December and says he immediately got calls from establishment party figures in politics and the news media to discuss the prospect.
"They had already realized that this field was really weak," Sabato said. "They were already trying to think of a way to get to a brokered convention."
A staggered Romney could trigger a move to find a fresh face to run in a way that would avoid a brokered convention. There is still time for a candidate to get his or her name on the ballot for nominating contests in big states like California, New York and New Jersey.
The winner could gain major momentum and the ability to peel away delegates from the others.
"If you see Romney lose Michigan, I think there is just going to be a cry for another candidate who is not Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum," said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst at the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
Editing by Will Dunham