It's no secret social conservatives are scrambling to find an alternative to Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination, but with the Iowa caucuses just six weeks away, time is rapidly running out. That's why several socially conservative groups in Iowa held a secret meeting this week to strategize, CNN reported on Wednesday.
The goal of the meeting on Monday was to settle on a preferred candidate in order to avoid splitting the conservative vote in January. Conservative voters have been almost unprecedentedly divided this election, with a string of candidates -- Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and now Newt Gingrich -- each gaining and losing favor in a matter of weeks. This indecision has led to a widespread sense of Romney as the inevitable nominee.
Conservative opposition thus far has centered on an anybody-but-Romney philosophy, which has been largely ineffective without a consensus on who the anybody might be. The groups present at the meeting -- the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, The Family Leader, Iowa Right to Life and the Iowa chapter of Concerned Women for America -- agreed that a viable anti-Romney strategy depends on endorsing a specific alternative.
But by the time the meeting ended, they still had not chosen an alternative. Attendees told CNN that they had narrowed the choices down to Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry and Rick Santorum, and that the group planned to reconvene next Monday.
Chuck Hurley, vice president of The Family Leader, told CNN that the group was not considering Herman Cain or Ron Paul: Cain because he has taken inconsistent positions on abortion and same-sex marriage and is, in the group's view, not quite experienced enough in civics, and Paul because he has said that he would leave hot-button issues like abortion and same-sex marriage up to the states.
Critics noted that the group was ruling out two of the most likely challengers to Romney in Iowa. Cain has 19 percent support to Romney's 17.5 percent support in RealClearPolitics.com's Iowa poll average for Nov. 8-15, and Paul has 12.5 percent support. Gingrich leads with 20.8 percent support, so he would be the most logical choice if the group is basing its endorsement on electability as well as ideology.
Bachmann, Perry and Santorum seem like less realistic options. Bachmann edged out Paul to win the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa in August, but her poll numbers began to fall shortly thereafter and have never recovered: she holds 6.5 percent in Iowa in the RealClearPolitics.com average. Perry, too, crashed after holding an early lead in the state, and he stands at 6.8 percent.
Santorum, meanwhile, is averaging 3.8 percent in Iowa. His RCP average has not reached 5 percent at any point in the campaign, and he is polling even worse in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada.
One person who attended the meeting, who spoke to CNN anonymously, questioned how much difference the group would really make by throwing its support behind a candidate with weak campaign infrastructure and little existing support.
If you want to stop Romney, you're probably going to have to have some organization [and] some money, the attendee said. Somebody who's at 5 percent or 6 percent in the polls, and they endorse, I don't think that does any good.
But Bob Vander Plaats, the president of The Family Leader, who did not personally attend the meeting, told CNN that the group had to try.
Our concern is that if the conservatives stay as fragmented as they are, that Romney could win the Iowa caucuses. And if he wins the Iowa caucuses, he'll be the nominee, Vander Plaats said.