Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, who is tumbling in the polls even in his native Pennsylvania amid mounting pressure to quit the Republican race, huddled with conservative leaders and aides Thursday to plot strategy.

Among options on the table, Reuters reported, is a plan that would involve Newt Gingrich dropping out of the race and backing Santorum in a late effort to unite conservatives and prevent Mitt Romney from clinching the nomination.

But rumors are also afoot that Santorum could bow out ahead of a potentially humiliating defeat in Pennsylvania on April 24, New York's Daily News reported.

“Losing would confirm Santorum’s downward spiral,” said David Schultz, political science professor at Hamline University in Minnesota. “But even if he wins, it will get discounted as people saying, ‘Sure, he should have won his home state.' I’m not sure how much of a bump he’d even get.”

The meeting, in a Virginia suburb of Washington, came two days after Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, won three primaries to widen his lead over Santorum in the state-by-state race for the Republican nomination.

Santorum's campaign had planned to take a long weekend break for Easter, but Thursday's meeting was called after the former Pennsylvania senator was approached by a group of unidentified conservatives to assess the path moving forward, a source in Santorum's campaign told Reuters.

Discussing Santorum's exit from the race was not the point of the meeting, the source said, adding that the talks were by no stretch of the imagination aimed at persuading Santorum to step aside and leave Romney to concentrate on the general election against President Barack Obama.

But the talks did include the question of whether Gingrich would stay in the race or drop out and back fellow conservative Santorum.

There's discussion about what Speaker Gingrich's role will be in this, Santorum spokeswoman Alice Stewart told MSNBC.

Gingrich has scaled back his campaign after his plan to make an impact in Southern primaries largely failed, but a spokesman said he would not quit and hand over his delegates to Santorum.

A Republican candidate needs 1,144 delegates required to win the nomination at the Republican convention in August.

CNN estimates that Romney has 657 delegates, over 200 more than the combined total for Santorum and Gingrich, who has polled in the single digits in recent major primaries.

Even if Gingrich did drop out, given how poorly he's fared in the last couple of contests I don't know how much that would really help Santorum, said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.

Santorum is counting on making a stand in his home state of Pennsylvania, which holds its primary on April 24.

However, a Public Policy Polling survey released Thursday indicated that for the first time, Romney led Santorum in Pennsylvania.

Adding to the pressure on Santorum, prominent Republican strategist Karl Rove called him a fading candidate in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece and said Romney had almost wrapped up the nomination.

As Santorum takes several days off the campaign trail to work out strategy and celebrate Easter, political analysts were questioning whether he is willing to face the prospect of losing his home state six years after an election in which he lost his Senate seat by 18 percentage points.

It's clear that Santorum also has his eye on (running for president in) 2016, and the question is whether he wants to bow out now or go to Pennsylvania, O'Connell said.

Romney leads in the state by 42 percent to 37 percent ahead of the primary in three weeks, according to the PPP poll. Romney campaigned in Pennsylvania on Thursday. His lead could increase in the coming weeks as his campaign and a pro-Romney super PAC hit the state with TV ads portraying Santorum as a backer of big government spending during his time in the Senate.

Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney PAC, has spent $408,000 on TV advertising in the northeastern market that overlaps Pennsylvania and four other states that are voting the same day, PAC spokeswoman Brittany Gross said.

The Red White and Blue Fund, a PAC that backs Santorum, has not reported any spending in Pennsylvania. I know they are pretty low on funds, a Republican source said of Santorum's campaign.

The source speculated that raising money might be one of the points Santorum is talking about with conservatives.