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Conservative Leaders, Santorum Meet, Discuss How To Keep The Fight Going

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum met with a group of conservative leaders Thursday behind closed doors at an office in Northern Virginia. They discussed the road ahead for Santorum's Republican presidential campaign as the polls tighten in his home state of Pennsylvania, which holds its primary on April 24.

The meeting included "strategic conversations about how to get the conservative ranks to coalesce around Rick," Santorum campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley told NPR.

Those discussions centered on how to get former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to drop out of the race and throw his support behind Santorum, Gidley said.

The meeting was initiated by "conservative leaders of different stripes" — both fiscal and social conservatives — who attended, and was not Santorum's idea, Gidley said.

Attendees who spoke to various reporters after the meeting included former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, veteran consultant Richard Viguerie and conservative columnist Rebecca Hagelin. Their characterizations of the meeting differed, both from the campaign and from each other. A full roster of attendees was not released.

Hagelin, who phoned into the meeting from Florida, told NPR that it focused on delegates to the Republican National Convention. Hagelin said that Gingrich was discussed only "in a very minor way."

Hagelin said the number of convention delegates secured by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Santorum is being reported incorrectly — both by the media and the Romney campaign — creating a false sense of Romney's inevitability.

Santorum's strategy has been to block Romney from securing the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination, as it looks nearly impossible for Santorum to reach that mark himself.

NPR's delegate count shows Romney in the lead with 550 delegates and Santorum running second with 214. This count includes only those delegates bound to a candidate by primaries and caucuses.

Delegate counts by other media organizations include projections of which candidates unpledged delegates will support. Those often give Romney a bigger lead.

On Thursday, the Santorum campaign said its "internal count that takes into account ongoing county, district and state conventions" put Romney at 571 delegates and Santorum at 342.

Viguerie, the conservative activist known for his role in pioneering direct-mail fundraising in the 1960s and '70s, told the National Review Online that the meeting focused on an overhaul of the campaign. "We've got to do things different. We've got to re-engineer the campaign," he said.

Viguerie acknowledged to Politico that it would be difficult for Santorum to keep running if he loses in his home state, Pennsylvania, later this month.

A new poll out Thursday by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-based firm, shows Romney ahead in the Keystone state by 5 points. (A Rasmussen Reports poll released Thursday had Santorum up by 4 points; a Quinnipiac University poll from Tuesday showed Santorum with a 6-point lead.)

Santorum had a double-digit lead in several Pennsylvania polls less than a month ago.

The consensus out of Thursday's meeting was that the Santorum campaign's focus remains on how to defeat Romney — not on any sort of Santorum exit strategy.

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