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."