WASHINGTON -- Prominent conservative leaders want their rank and file to quickly get behind a single presidential candidate -- Rick Santorum now seems the likeliest -- fearful that persistent splits will help Mitt Romney win the Republican nomination.
"While no political candidate, or human being for that matter, is perfect, Rick Santorum's baggage contains his clothes," CatholicVote.org President Brian Burch said Thursday, after Santorum's virtual tie with Romney in the Iowa caucuses won the support of the 600,000-member online organization.
"Republicans hoping to win back the White House in November must unite behind the candidate most dedicated to the foundational issues of faith, family and freedom," he said.
Romney narrowly won the Iowa caucuses when conservative voters split their support among several challengers, and the worry is that the same thing will happen in South Carolina, Florida and beyond if Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry all stay in the race.
"Conservatives are still divided among a number of different candidates, but the field is winnowing," said former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer. And, he said, "I certainly think that Senator Santorum is in a good position to inherit a lot of that support."
In the afterglow of Santorum's unexpectedly narrow loss to Romney in Iowa, leaders on the right who have been scarcely engaged in the rollicking Republican contest began buzzing about the prospect of endorsing Santorum, with his solid conservative credentials, or someone else such as Gingrich, who has deep conservative roots.
To discuss how to proceed, some of those leaders have set up meetings from Washington to Texas before the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary.
That vote could prove pivotal, given that the Republicans who have won the state for decades have eventually become the party's nominees.
"There is movement, even members of Congress who are weighing this now who are looking to make a move," said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who said he has spoken with more than eight leaders with conservative constituencies, including lawmakers.
He declined to name them, but said, "I do think you'll see growing momentum toward Rick Santorum."
Interviews with a number of leaders, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, indicated that Santorum was emerging as the preferred alternative to Romney, though a few still are watching Gingrich.
Not one mentioned Perry, who announced that he would reassess his campaign in light of a fifth-place showing in Iowa, only to say a day later that he would press on in South Carolina.
Many conservatives have long viewed Romney with skepticism.
These voters complain that he has reversed himself on a series of social issues, and they also don't like his record of support for government health care and exceptions to abortion restrictions.