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Rick Santorum huddles with conservative leaders, ponders future in race

at 04:01 PM ET, 04/05/2012

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum met with conservative leaders Thursday in Northern Virginia to discuss his path forward in the Republican presidential race, according to sources familiar with the gathering.


Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum speaks to supporters in front of the Blair County Courthouse during a campaign rally on April 4, 2012, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
The conversation focused on the struggling candidacy of former House speaker Newt Gingrich and whether a final push could be made to unite conservatives and stop the likely nomination of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. The idea of Santorum leaving the race was not raised.

“It was a discussion of how to win, not a discussion of anything other than that,” said Gary Bauer, a prominent social conservative leader who was at the meeting.

Despite this optimism, there are signs that the wear and tear of the campaign trail and the daunting odds against his winning the nomination are weighing on Santorum.

“He is exhausted,” said one influential Republican who has talked to Santorum in recent days. “He is very, very worried about losing Pennsylvania. He is trying to find a way to throw a very long pass that could change the game.”

That search for game-changers seems unlikely to produce success for Santorum. A Gingrich decision to exit the race and endorse Santorum in an attempt to unite conservatives seems unlikely to happen or to affect the outcome of the nomination fight.

Gingrich has pledged to remain in the race — albeit in a scaled-down campaign — until the Republican National Convention in August. Even if he did leave the race and endorse Santorum, there’s little evidence that he could deliver a significant bloc of voters to Santorum or change the delegate math, which is close to determinative in Romney’s favor.

Seeking to push back against the idea that the race is over or headed in that direction, the Santorum campaign on Thursday released a memo from John Yob, the campaign’s delegate expert, arguing that the “media’s delegate math is wrong.”

Among the memo’s contentions: Florida, Arizona and potentially Puerto Rico will be penalized at the convention for moving ahead in the nominating calendar and will award far fewer delegates than are being counted toward Romney right now. It also contends that Texas plans to become a winner-take-all state, which could provide Santorum with a bevy of delegates.

The Texas primary will be held in late May, and the state will eventually award 155 delegates. Texas Republicans are considering a change that would allocate the delegates on some form of a winner-take-all basis, which would make it one of the biggest prizes of the year.

“This race is much closer than the media and establishment Republicans would like to report and events such as Texas are dramatically changing the future landscape in a manner that is positive to Rick Santorum and negative for Mitt Romney,” Yob wrote.

Santorum also met privately with Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday, the day that Wisconsin, Maryland and the District held primaries. Ray Sullivan, a top adviser to the governor, said the meeting was viewed mostly as a courtesy call. He said he did not know the details of the discussion between the two men. Perry endorsed Gingrich after he dropped out of the presidential race. Sullivan said there has been no change in his posture nor is any expected.

Regardless of the delegate count, it’s clear that Santorum must find a way to win Pennsylvania’s primary on April 24 if he hopes to have any chance at (re)making his case to voters.

Santorum spokeswoman Alice Stewart told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell Thursday afternoon that “we’re going to hit the ground running Tuesday and we expect to do well.” (Santorum is taking the weekend off the campaign trail to celebrate Easter with his family.)

Polling suggests that Pennsylvania is a toss-up, although Romney clearly has momentum after wins in Illinois and Wisconsin in recent weeks. There has been little recent polling in Texas, which doesn’t hold its primary until May 29.

A loss in Pennsylvania — coming five and a half years after Santorum lost his bid for reelection in the Keystone State by 18 points — would likely not only embarrass him but also leave a bad taste in the mounts of many voters who had supported him but are now ready for the race to end.

“If he were to call me, as his friend, I would advise him to seriously consider withdrawing,” said Richard Land, a prominent social conservative. “He has been a remarkable success. He’s come from nowhere; he’s resurrected his political career; it was a phenomenal run, but it’s clear now that Romney’s going to be the nominee, and it would be really counterproductive for him to stay in and lose Pennsylvania.”

 
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