American right in last-minute bid to derail a Romney win

Newt Gingrich may be asked to quit and give Rick Santorum free run against centrist favourite

The increasingly disconsolate right flank of the Republican Party is making a last-gasp effort to find ways to help Rick Santorum block Mitt Romney from clinching the US presidential nomination.

Possible game plans to keep Mr Santorum competitive were discussed at a behind-closed-doors meeting in Virginia on Thursday, attended by the candidate and representatives of assorted conservative groups, including family values and Christian Republicans, anti-tax fiscal conservatives and the Tea Party. They included leaning on Newt Gingrich to leave the field to allow all conservatives to unite behind Mr Santorum.

Some of that pressure on the former Speaker is already being applied. "I know there are some conversations going on at this moment. We will see what he [Gingrich] wants to do," said a Santorum aide, Hogan Gidley.

The will to do something seems genuine and is fuelled by a conviction that Mr Romney's conservative posturing during the primaries has been just that. "We continue to believe that Senator Santorum has the best message that is most likely in November to be a winning message," noted a former Family Research Council chief, Gary Bauer. "Most of us don't think we need small course corrections, we need to come up with some big, bold ideas," added Richard Viguerie, a Reagan-era conservative activist, who hinted that he expected to see significant changes in Mr Santorum's campaign strategy "in the next seven to 10 days".

But the influence of conservative movement is waning. Two years after the Tea Party ensured the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, polls suggest its standing among voters is collapsing. A Fox News survey shows 51 per cent of Americans disapproving of the Tea Party and only 30 per cent supporting it. It is a shift that has emboldened the party old guard to rally behind Mr Romney.

The diminishing clout of the right, the lingering presence of Mr Gingrich, and his own shortcomings as a candidate are all combining to lengthen the odds of a comeback by Mr Santorum. Most alarming for his campaign are polls showing that he may not even be able to hang on to Pennsylvania, his home state, when it votes on 24 April.

It is not even clear that removing Mr Gingrich would help much. Still, his departure might give Mr Santorum a tiny additional margin to cling to in Pennsylvania where a loss might be fatal. "It would be difficult to draw a scenario that he can get the nomination if he doesn't win Pennsylvania," Mr Viguerie said.

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