(WASHINGTON) — A group of conservative leaders gathered in Virginia on Thursday for a closed-door meeting with Rick Santorum to determine whether the Republican Party can coalesce behind an alternative to Mitt Romney.
“I think it can be done,” conservative activist and Santorum supporter Richard Viguerie said in an interview with ABC News. “We all left excited. We’re going to wait for instructions from Rick.”
But Viguerie, one of the gathering’s organizers who invited Santorum to join, acknowledged “there’s no question that we have lost control of the narrative.”
The veteran GOP strategist said the goal of Thursday’s meeting was to come up with a list of “big bold ideas to grab control of the narrative and turn the campaign around.”
He said the conservative conclave tossed around some “really bold, unprecedented” proposals and that it was now up to the Santorum campaign to put them into action. Officials with the campaign declined to discuss specifics.
The delegate count loomed large in Thursday’s discussion, participants noted, as well as the future of Newt Gingrich’s candidacy. But the group’s goal was not necessarily to hasten the former House speaker’s exit from the race, according to attendees.
Others who participated in the meeting either in person or by phone included Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and conservative activists Gary Bauer and Rebecca Hagelin.
As for Santorum, “the clear message from him is that he’s in this and that he wouldn’t be in this if he wasn’t passionate about winning,” said L. Brent Bozell, the chairman of the conservative activist group For America.
Bozell, who made clear that he has not endorsed Santorum but attended the meeting to listen and share ideas, said there were some in the room who “absolutely believe the Romney campaign is potentially fatally flawed” and that “Republicans need a different candidate.”
Viguerie is among Romney’s most ardent detractors, saying that conservatives like him were “really ticked that in six and a half years or so, he has avoided reaching out to conservatives in any way.”
The group of conservative heavyweights, some of whom have endorsed Santorum’s candidacy, have met several times before. Despite their efforts, they have yet to change the dynamic of the GOP presidential primary. For that, Viguerie said, “all of us who are in the conservative movement are at fault.”
“We’re at halftime, and we went into the locker room today,” he added. “We identified what’s working and not working.”
On Tuesday, Romney increased his delegate lead over Santorum with wins in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia. The former Massachusetts governor has 658 delegates compared to 281 for Santorum — a gap so substantial that Santorum would need to win roughly three-quarters of the remaining delegates to win the nomination.
But the Santorum campaign is disputing that count. According to the calculations of the campaign’s delegate strategist, John Yob, Santorum is actually 229 delegates behind Romney rather than 377.
“This race is much closer than the media and Establishment Republicans would like to report and there and events such as Texas are dramatically changing the future landscape in a manner that is positive to Rick Santorum and negative for Mitt Romney,” Yob wrote in a memo on Thursday. “The other campaigns are beginning to work together more closely to prevent Romney from reaching 1144 and it is starting to pay dividends.”
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