Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum met privately with conservative leaders on Thursday to craft plans to try to stop Mitt Romney's march to the nomination. Pressuring rival Newt Gingrich to leave the race was part of their overall strategy.
The northern Virginia meeting included a host of fiscal and social conservatives who have long doubted Romney's conservative credentials.
"Like halftime at a football game, you go into the locker room to gauge what has been working and what hasn't," meeting participant Richard A. Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, said in a statement. "The Santorum campaign team recognizes that, because of Mitt Romney's money advantage and his support from the Republican establishment and the mainstream media, Rick has, to some extent, lost control of narrative in the campaign."
Among other topics, according to Viguerie, the participants discussed their perception that "delegate counts being published by the Romney campaign and the media are simply inaccurate."
The group decided to apply more pressure on Gingrich to quit, which they see as allowing divided conservatives to unite behind Santorum, according to an official close to the campaign. The official requested anonymity to discuss private conversations.
The effort may be too late. Romney has twice as many delegates as Santorum, according to The Associated Press count, and is on track to having a majority of delegates in June. Gingrich has ignored calls to leave the race for weeks and shows no sign of bowing out even after scaling back his campaign.
The private meeting came as Romney's supporters, including high-profile conservatives from across the country, intensified pressure on Santorum to leave the race to allow Romney to focus on a general election campaign against President Barack Obama. The Democratic president informally launched the general election earlier in the week, going after Romney by name in a speech and a multistate advertising campaign.
The Santorum campaign insisted that the former Pennsylvania senator will not leave the contest, despite Romney's near-insurmountable delegate lead. Romney has collected 658 delegates compared to 281 for Santorum, 135 for Gingrich and 51 for Ron Paul, according to the AP tally.
Santorum's strategy depends on winning Pennsylvania's primary on April 24 and, with that momentum, finding success in a series of May contests.
But Santorum would need 80 percent of the remaining delegates to win the nomination before the party's national convention in August. That won't happen as long as Romney stays in the race because most upcoming primaries use some type of proportional system to award delegates, making it hard to win large numbers of delegates in individual states.
Santorum's only hope is a contested convention, which becomes less and less likely with each Romney victory.
Thursday's meeting aside, Santorum is largely taking a break from the campaign trail to observe the Easter holiday. He returned to his Virginia home Wednesday night after appearing at some campaign events and going bowling in Pennsylvania, which he represented in Congress for 16 years.
Santorum has scheduled fundraising events for Monday and planned to resume campaigning Tuesday in Pennsylvania.