“For the first time in a generation, Republicans are preparing for the possibility that their presidential nomination could be decided at their national convention rather than on the campaign trail, a prospect that would upend one of the rituals of modern politics…

“With that in mind, campaign and party lawyers are dusting off their party rule books, running through decades-old procedural arcana and studying the most recent convention-floor fight, between Ronald Reagan and President Gerald R. Ford in 1976. Republican officials also are bracing for the possibility of a prenomination clash between the party’s establishment and members of the Tea Party movement, many of whom may be attending their first national convention…

“Mr. Santorum has hired a delegate specialist to comb through the patchwork of state-by-state rules and to find unpledged delegates who could swing to him in a floor fight, an effort Mr. Romney’s campaign says it is prepared to counter. Newt Gingrich’s team is expected to hold on to its delegates even if it is clear that he has fallen short — if only to keep Mr. Romney from reaching a majority.

“And the Republican National Committee has alerted the Committee on Contests to be ready for action, preparing for the possibility of courtroomlike hearings run by lawyers that could decide whether the nomination is settled before party members take their seats in the Tampa Bay Times Forum sports arena.”

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“Mitt Romney, mired in a frustrating slog toward the presidential nomination, has directed his top advisers to launch a multi-pronged effort to unite the Republican Party as the primaries draw to a close.

“While Romney’s public activities are geared almost entirely toward winning the nomination, his campaign is on a private mission aimed beyond spring. Senior aides and surrogates — hoping to seize a moment when even some unfriendly Republicans are beginning to see Romney as inevitable — have spent the past several weeks making calls and visits to conservative leaders and activists who have resisted Romney’s candidacy.

“Campaign manager Matt Rhoades has been wooing tea party organizers in general-election swing states and, in some cases, offering private meetings with Romney. Advisers with roots in the conservative movement, such as Bay Buchanan and Mark DeMoss, have been reaching out to evangelical leaders who are backing other candidates. Elected officials, led by Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), have been courting lawmakers and Beltway power-players who are not on board.

“In Boston, longtime confidants Beth Myers and Ron Kaufman are developing a plan for the GOP convention in Tampa, to prevent the party from being divided during the nominee’s turn in the spotlight. Still other Romney emissaries are in touch with mega-donors — including billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has been supporting former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), and Foster Friess, who backs former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) — to persuade them to jump ship.”

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“As Missouri voters gathered to select delegates for the convention, Rick Santorum made the case that the delegate race between him and Mitt Romney is closer than the current delegate math estimates suggest.

“‘You help us here today. You elect delegates for us today to go to that convention. We’ve got some new delegate math that we’re going to be putting out that shows this race is a lot different than what the consensus is. We’re looking at the rules, we’re looking at how things are stacking up, and we’re in much better shape in these caucuses and some of these apportioned states or winner take all states which in fact are not winner take all states,’ said Santorum at a Lafayette Township caucus site Saturday morning…

“Those numbers are frankly just not true. I mean, the delegate allocation isn’t anywhere near what they’re suggesting. It’s a very pro-Romney allocation of resources,’ said Santorum [in a radio interview]. ‘Many of the delegates that have been put forward right now are truly just still uncommitted and can go either way. There’s no hard and fast that he’s gonna get those votes or we’ll get those votes, so we’ve got a long way to go.'”

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“Santorum hopes to ride into Tampa with enough support to deny Romney the nomination on the first ballot. Under this scenario, delegates would be free, in many cases, to back whomever they wanted.

“Yob’s memo said Romney ‘will perform worse on subsequent ballots as grassroots conservative delegates decide to back the more conservative candidate. Subsequently, Santorum only needs to be relatively close on the initial ballot in order to win on a later ballot as Romney’s support erodes.’

“But there are hurdles Santorum is overlooking.

“It takes money and organization to twist arms at local, county and state conventions; Santorum lags in both.”

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“Contrary to what he’s been saying for weeks, Gingrich suggested he would bow out of the Republican delegate hunt if Romney is close to the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination by the GOP convention this summer.

“‘Well it depends, if we are successful and he doesn’t have an absolute – if he doesn’t have 1,000 delegates, I mean you know, if he’s close, attrition will get him the last 100,’ Gingrich said of Romney, when Forman asked if would go to the convention. ‘But if he’s under 1,000 delegates, I don’t think he’s going to get the nomination.’…

“‘With both Santorum and me, he’s now confused as to who he is attacking. It’s his only technique. I tell people he’s like a 4-foot-8 guy who wants to play center and his only technique is to shrink the others, which I think bodes very badly for a general election,’ Gingrich said.”

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“Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum could be poised to split the upcoming Republican primary contests, a scenario that would leave the tumultuous nomination battle no more decided heading into April.

“New polling shows Romney and Santorum each building respective leads in the remaining elections held in March.”

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