By LAURIE KELLMAN
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 Iowa 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."
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 the former Pennsylvania senator with the 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's spoken with more than eight leaders with conservative constituencies, including lawmakers. He declined to name them but added: "I do think you'll see growing momentum toward Rick Santorum."
Indeed, 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 he would reassess his campaign in light of a fifth-place showing in Iowa only to say a day later he would press on in South Carolina.
Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who is a favorite of evangelicals and the tea party, took the opposite route, abandoning her bid after coming in last in Iowa. That's left her backers up for grabs and looking for someone to rally behind.
It's unlikely to be Romney.
Many conservatives have long viewed him skeptically. These voters complain that he's reversed himself on a series of social issues. They also don't like his record of support for government health care and exceptions to abortion restrictions. And, with conservatives making up the base of the party, the skepticism has kept his support under 25 percent in most national surveys and in some early primary states despite his front-runner status, strong organization and big bank account.
"You'll eventually come down to one conservative and Governor Romney," Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, predicted Thursday in New Hampshire. "And he'll continue to get 25 percent. By definition at some point in that game somebody is going to start getting a lot more votes than Governor Romney."
The hand-wringing on the right over Romney as the nominee has produced a deeply unsettled nomination fight.
Conservative voters have spent much of the year flitting from Bachmann to Perry to Gingrich in search of someone to back.
In Iowa, they finally ended up rallying behind Santorum, making him the latest candidate to emerge as the more conservative alternative to Romney.
"We're the folks that people are getting excited about," Santorum said after an appearance Thursday in Manchester.
His near victory in Iowa - Romney by eight votes - is prompting new calls to reach a consensus.
"It's time for the conservatives to get off the sidelines and get into the arena, and make our choice known," said Richard Viguerie, a longtime GOP fundraiser, who after much searching said he has picked a candidate. "There was Rick Santorum, in plain sight, all along."
And Burch, the president of CatholicVote.org, also is suggesting that supporters take a second look at Santorum.
"Until the last two weeks, it wasn't clear whether Santorum would get the traction he needed to compete," Burch wrote to backers after Santorum's Iowa finish, saying: "He put these doubts firmly to rest."
Both Santorum and Gingrich are Catholic. Romney is a Mormon.
Just days before a pair of weekend debates and the New Hampshire primary, Santorum has significant vulnerabilities including some that irk conservatives: He's made some provocative remarks about gay marriage and abortion that have put conservative leaders in awkward spots. And during 18 years in Congress, he voted for federal budgets that included funding for Planned Parenthood, and for George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education law.
Some seem willing to look past those, saying that Santorum could be appealing to Midwesterners, Catholics and swing voters.
They see an ardent family man of faith with a consistent record on abortion, gun control and other legal issues. He's as able a debater as Romney, they say, and probably would be a more passionate advocate for conservative values against Obama.
As for past remarks likening abortion to slavery and gay marriage to polygamy and the coupling of men and dogs?
"It's a price worth paying" for a conservative presidential candidate, said Curt Levey of Judicial Watch, who says Santorum helped pave the way for the confirmations of conservative Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Levey's group hasn't endorsed a candidate, but he offers this comparison of Santorum and Romney: "Romney's strength is also his weakness. He never says anything controversial."
For tea party activists, Santorum's appeal lies in his populist, working-class persona.
"They know he's a hard worker, and they like that," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. "But they are concerned because in his past record, he spent more (federal) money than what needs to happen right now."
Many conservative leaders will have a chance to discuss how to proceed face-to-face next week at a meeting in Texas hosted by Bauer, among others. He said the meeting was planned weeks ago and emphasized that the goal is not to promote Santorum.
He added: "Nor is it a stop-Romney meeting."
Even so, that may be the impact.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in Manchester, N.H., and Shannon McCaffrey in Plymouth, N.H., contributed to this report.