Conservatives gathered in Washington this week are increasingly relishing the prospect that the Republican presidential nomination fight will extend for months, and could even lead to a brokered convention in Tampa, Fla., this summer.
Fueled by former Sen. Rick Santorum's stunning three-state sweep in Tuesday's three primaries and caucuses, those at the Conservative Political Action Conference — the country's largest annual gathering of right-leaning activists — said the chances for a stalemate in the delegate count grow with every stumble by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"For the first time in a while, there is actually at this point a reasonable chance that the nomination could come down to a floor fight," said Jeffrey M. Frederick, former Virginia Republican Party chairman.
The speculation even made it onto the dais at CPAC when Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, said during a panel discussion that 2012 could make modern political history.
"I would have said that the day of the convention deciding the nomination was over and was settled by the rise of the primary," Mr. Reed told the audience. "I'm not sure that will be the case in 2012."
Three of the four Republicans still vying for the party's presidential nomination — everyone but Rep. Ron Paul of Texas — will speak to CPAC on Friday, hoping to win the hearts of the conservative activists who power much of the Republican Party.
The prospect of a drawn-out nomination process is a key motivator for Mr. Paul, Mr. Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, all of whom are trying to keep the front-running Mr. Romney from securing the 1,144 delegates he needs to win the Republican nomination on the first ballot.
Many conservatives have been slow to warm to Mr. Romney because of his evolving positions on abortion and his Massachusetts health care law, which requires state residents to purchase insurance. As a result, they have been torn in many ways between Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich — and the longer contest gives them more time to evaluate and choose among the candidates in the field.
Mr. Romney tried to erase any of those lingering doubts by courting conservatives during a private meeting here Thursday.
The last convention when the outcome was in any doubt whatsoever was 1976, but Republicans structured their rules this year to make the process move slower and let candidates earn delegates even when they don't win states. Under the new rules, contests held before April are supposed to award delegates on a proportional basis, as opposed to the winner-take-all fashion that governed many past races and that tended to wrap things up quickly.
"It is at least possible, because the system has changed considerably, that no one will have a majority at the time the convention convenes, and we might have a multi-ballot convention," said Morton C. Blackwell, a National Republican Committee member from Virginia.
The arcane system for selecting a nominee also could benefit Mr. Paul, a 12-term congressman whose biggest strength is the dedication of his supporters.
In states that hold caucuses, Mr. Paul's fans are more likely to ask to be delegates to district and state conventions, which is often where the delegates to the national nominating convention are decided. That means that even when he doesn't win a majority of votes in a precinct's caucus, his supporters are more likely to show up in later rounds when the votes count.
After the caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota on Tuesday, John Tate, Mr. Paul's campaign manager, said the campaign is confident in "gaining a much larger share of delegates than even our impressive showing yesterday indicates."
"This race, after all, is about delegates, not about beauty contests," he said, pointing to three Colorado counties where Mr. Paul lost the popular vote, but came away with more delegates to the eventual regional conventions than anyone else. "We are also seeing the same trends in Minnesota, Nevada, and Iowa, and in Missouri as well."
Mr. Paul's son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, said Thursday at CPAC that his father's supporters know how to work the system for maximum benefit.
"I think they learned about it in 2008, and I think a lot of them show up and a lot of them stay at the caucus until the bitter end to try and get appointed as delegates," he said.
The senator said the hunt for delegates was part of the reason his father was skipping CPAC, where he has won the straw poll two years in a row. The candidate is campaigning in Maine, which is holding caucuses all week and which will announce results Saturday.
The new rules also punish states that held their contests too early, such as Florida, which will lose half its delegates to the national convention.
According to Mr. Blackwell, Florida's early primary date means it also might be allowed to award its delegates in a winner-take-all fashion, as the state party had called for and the method that is reflected in national delegate-race counts showing Mr. Romney in the lead.
Mr. Blackwell said he, for one, would support a move to allocate those delegates proportionally, which would eat into Mr. Romney's current lead and would boost Mr. Gingrich.
"Unless Mitt Romney has a big majority, in which case as the presumptive nominee he can get what he wants out of the preliminary activities at the convention, then the Florida delegation of 50 will be, according to the rules, allocated some way proportionately," Mr. Blackwell said.
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