Picture this scenario: In the dozen days leading up to the final primaries before Super Tuesday, a surging candidate named Rick Santorum jockeys repeatedly with the front-runner Mitt Romney for the lead in Michigan.
A few days before the vote on Feb. 28, Santorum looks for some insurance to rob Romney of a key win. Enter Newt Gingrich, the other supposed conservative alternative to Romney whose support has dwindled since his only primary win, in South Carolina.
Gingrich, who has worn his contempt for the front-runner on his sleeve since a pro-Romney superpac spent millions of dollars savaging him in ads, has a chance to become a kingmaker instead of an also-ran. All he has to do is quit the race, endorse Santorum and hope that the more conservative candidate wins.
"I think it would be the conventional and wise political move," said Richard Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. "Because then he could help take credit if Santorum wins and enhance his prospects of having a significant role in a Santorum administration."
There's just one problem with this scenario: The chances of Gingrich losing his ego and quitting the race before he absolutely he has to are lower than that of Michele Bachmann getting back in the race and winning the primary.
A half-dozen influential conservative leaders who haven't endorsed a candidate suggested in interviews that while stepping aside would help Gingrich now more than ever, nobody really expects him to do so.
"If, in fact, Gingrich was being anything other than Gingrich, that might be a wise move, but you don't actually think that's going to happen," said David Keene, the former American Conservative Union chairman and current president of the National Rifle Association, which hasn't endorsed a candidate. "It's all about Newt."
The conservative editors at the National Review wrote this week that Gingrich should abandon his bid in part because he's in the same situation Santorum was in when Gingrich suggested that he quit himself. "It is not clear whether Gingrich remains in the race because he still believes he could become president next year or because he wants to avenge his wounded pride: an ambiguity that suggests the problem with him as a leader," the publication said. "When he led Santorum in the polls, he urged the Pennsylvanian to leave the race. On his own arguments the proper course for him now is to endorse Santorum and exit."
The difference now is that timing is more of a factor. There isn't a single primary or caucus until Feb. 28, when voters in Michigan and Arizona go to the polls. If Romney wins both contests solidly, he'll head a week later into Super Tuesday, the biggest primary event of the year, with first-place status. But if Santorum can pull off a win in Arizona or in Michigan, where polls put him right up there with Romney, then Super Tuesday could become a contest with no clear front-runner going in.
But thinking that Gingrich could endorse Santorum before Feb. 28 assumes that the former House speaker is more interested in Romney being beaten than being president himself.
"This is Newt's chance to be Winston Churchill. He's not interested in being the unknown conservative leader to step aside," said a prominent conservative who asked not to be named because he works with the candidates. "If you're Newt Gingrich, you could live with losing to Romney. You can't live with losing to Santorum."
"I think he's going to stay in there, and I think he probably will play the Fred Thompson role," said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, referring to the "Law & Order" star's entrance into the 2008 GOP primary that some conservatives blame for siphoning off votes from Mike Huckabee. "He'll be the spoiler, quite possibly."
On Tuesday, Gingrich swatted aside National Review's suggestion to quit, predicting that "in a few weeks" he'd be back at the top of the Gallup poll. He also repeated his belief that the nominating contest won't end until the Republican Party's convention after the primary ends. Other conservatives have said the same; Sarah Palin over the weekend told an annual gathering of conservative activists in Washington that a drawn-out fight would battle-test the eventual nominee for the better.
Not all conservatives who are avoiding an endorsement agree.
"I think it would be better if it were resolved before the convention," said Ralph Reed, the religious leader who built up the Christian Coalition. Reed suggested, though, that calling on Gingrich to quit the race early would have "the opposite of the intended effect."
"You tell him he ought to get out — he's going to dig his heels in even harder, so I just don't think it's real smart," Reed said.
Brent Bozell, the conservative media figure, said he would advise Gingrich: "Until you're out of bullets, keep firing."
Some of Gingrich's more prominent supporters acknowledged that he has skidded into a rough patch in the primary, but they laughed off the idea of him quitting. "Money makes a difference, and I don't know, frankly, I don't know what the condition of Newt's campaign is financially," said former Rep. Bob Livingston. "Rick says he's picking up some money in the last few days, and he may well be. Romney seems to have unlimited funds."
Gingrich's endorsers, however, appear to be fairly fond of Santorum.
"Oh, I would say that if Newt got out of the race, I would support Santorum," said Fred Grandy, the actor who played Gopher on "The Love Boat" in the 1970s and who later was a congressman from Iowa. "I think no matter what you take away from the pageantry of the Republican presidential sweepstakes, there clearly is a cry for a winning conservative candidate. That's what Newt and Rick Santorum I think are vying for right now."
Conservative leaders describe Santorum's latest surge as firmer than the peaks that characterized the Republican primary in December and the early January contests. They say that Santorum's hat trick in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri has solidified some of his support and given him the appearance of a real candidate for possibly the first time in the race.
They also point to a meeting they convened in Texas in the middle of January, when 150 influential religious and conservative leaders formed a consensus around backing Santorum to stop Romney from winning the nomination. Some of those who were there now say their efforts to spread support for Santorum have paid off palpably.
"They're going to go back to their grassroots," Land said. "They're going to plant seeds. They're going to fertilize."