Okay, the headline might sell CNN’s scoop a little short, but not by much.  Shannon Travis roots out a conspiracy among social-conservative activists in Iowa to keep Mitt Romney from winning the first-in-the-nation contest on January 3, and hopefully springboard their favored candidate into the national lead.  And who is that? Er …

Representatives for leading social conservative groups in Iowa held a secret meeting Monday as part of an effort with one main goal: find and support a Republican presidential candidate who can stop Mitt Romney in Iowa.

The idea: avoid splintering the conservative vote in the state by rallying around one GOP rival who could win Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucus and then challenge Romney in New Hampshire and the other early voting states.

Many social conservatives and other religious leaders in the state have openly labeled the former Massachusetts governor as a “flip-flopper,” a criticism the campaign frequently beats back, while others have seen Romney’s Mormon faith as an issue. And many of them have openly hoped for someone to emerge as a viable alternative to the former Massachusetts governor. …

The meeting, the group’s first, took place in a private office building in Des Moines on Monday. In attendance were representatives from the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, The Family Leader, the group Iowa Right to Life, and a representative for the Iowa chapter of Concerned Women for America. Some pastors from prominent Iowa churches also attended the meeting.

And in other news from May, debt-ceiling negotiations are expected to go right down to the wire, and get your money out of MF Global, too.  It’s no secret that social conservatives want an alternative to Romney, and not just in Iowa, either.  The problem they’ve had is that none of the candidates in the field either meet their standards or have caught fire with the voters.

That problem continued in this super-secret, hush-hush meeting that everyone apparently wanted to discuss afterward:

The effort is said to still be in the discussion phase. Participants were said to have narrowed their focus down to four candidates: Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Why not Herman Cain?  He’s “not experienced enough with civics” to make the activists comfortable with placing the big bet on the Cain Train, says Chuck Hurley, VP of Family Leader.  And Ron Paul is still Ron Paul, even after Paul’s impassioned defense of pro-life policies at the Ames straw poll in August.  That leaves them with two boomlet candidates who have already been deflated (Perry and Bachmann), one candidate who has poured out effort in Iowa to little avail so far (Santorum), and Gingrich, who could win the state with a big push from the grassroots but whose personal life doesn’t exactly reflect their principles.  One might guess that Gingrich’s answer yesterday on immigration might cause a little angst for Newtmentum as well, deservedly or not.

Santorum might be the most logical choice of the four.  He’s absolutely solid on social conservatism, has a good breadth of knowledge on domestic and foreign policy, and most importantly hasn’t done anything to cause voters to consider and then abandon him, unlike the rest of the boomlet candidates.  At this late hour, though, his lack of traction will have these influential organizations hesitating to push in all their markers on a man who hasn’t convinced a whole lot of voters on his own, and suffer the damage to their influence that a big flop could cause in Iowa.  I’d bet that they will wait to see who Sarah Palin endorses, and follow suit.