My head-scratching over Mitt Romney’s handling of Richard Grenell came to an end with this realization. Romney is the presumptive Republican nominee for president who is still fighting to secure the nomination. What should have been his Sister Souljah moment — an open expression of defiance from a segment of your base that appeals to the middle — turned into a senseless pander.

Of course, I’m talking about l’affaire Richard Grenell.He of the impeccable national security resume who also happened to be openly and proudly gay. His job was to be Romney’s spokesman on foreign policy. But social conservatives were having none of it.

Bryan Fischer, in particular, was none too pleased. And the noise emanating from the National Review and other conservative outlets led the Romney campaign to put Grenell on lockdown before he even had a chance to get started. As one Republican adviser told the New York Times, “It’s not that the campaign cared whether Ric Grenell was gay. They believed this was a nonissue. But they didn’t want to confront the religious right.” The operative word here is not “confront” but “rile.”

Social conservatives have long been wary of the moderate Massachusetts governor. No matter how many times Romney says he is conservative — and no matter how “severely” he puts it — those folks just don’t believe him. That’s why Rick Santorum, whose conservative credentials are solid and beyond reproach, was able to hang on for as long as he did in the primaries. And that’s why the man who lost his Pennsylvania Senate seat by 18 points in 2006 had enormous leverage during his  90-minute meeting when he met with Romney in Pittsburgh this afternoon. A story on the get-together has some telling quotes from the senior strategist from the Santorum campaign.

Santorum wants to find a “comfort level” about the role "social conservatives, tea party activists and blue-collar Republicans will play in the campaign and in the Romney administration,” John Brabender, senior strategist to the Santorum campaign, told CNN before the meeting. “We are not walking in there with a litmus test. This is meant to be a candid conversation.”

In previewing the session, aides to Santorum said he wanted to hear from Romney’s camp whether it will emphasize conservative principles during the general election campaign and in the party's platform.

“We think there is an excitement around those issues,” Hogan Gidley, a senior adviser to the Santorum campaign, told CNN. With him winning 11 states and doing better than Romney with the more conservative wing of the party in those states, “We want to make sure those people have a say.”

Tony Perkins of the anti-gay Family Research Council and a Santorum friend and  supporter couldn’t have been more clear in that story. “I think it’s going to be very important for Mitt Romney to secure the support, the enthusiastic support of Rick Santorum,” he said. “Those people continue to see him as a voice, a shaping voice, upon Mitt Romney and upon the Republican Party.”

By not standing up for Grenell or his ability to employ the best people he can find, Romney handed the far right a middle-scaring victory. We should all be worried about what else Romney will have to do to actually secure the nomination he all but has in hand already.