Newt Gingrich's plan to keep Mitt Romney from winning the necessary delegates for the GOP nomination means the presidential contenders might have to form a deal in order to avoid a brokered convention, a leading Gingrich surrogate told The Hill.
Former Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) said an agreement between the candidates would be preferable to taking the fight to the convention floor in Tampa, Fla., this August.
“If the four candidates that are involved decide to somehow put delegates together to make somebody the nominee based on the delegates they've earned I don't think I'd call that a backroom deal,” he said. “A brokered convention [could] go against the wishes of all the voters and maybe pick someone who wasn't even running. No one I know wants a brokered convention.”
Gingrich has publicly stated that his goal is to keep Romney from winning the 1,144 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination.
His spokesman, R.C. Hammond, told reporters Tuesday night that "our goal first is to keep Romney well below 1,000," according to reports. He added that if that happens: "This will be the first time in our party in modern politics that we're going to go to the convention floor."
Gingrich's goal points to a series of worries among Republicans about their primary process: that Romney hasn't been able to close the deal, that the proportional system of awarding delegates is dragging out the race to the possible benefit of President Obama, and that the possibility of brokered convention is growing.
Romney leads the delegate count with 495 delegates, followed by Rick Santorum with 252, according to The Associated Press. Gingrich is in third with 131 and Ron Paul trails with 48.
The odds of Santorum or Gingrich earning enough delegates to win the nomination outright are slim to none, an argument the Romney camp has made repeatedly.
"Santorum and Gingrich now trail Governor Romney by margins they cannot mathematically make up," Romney political director Rich Beeson wrote in a memo Wednesday morning.
"In order to win, both Santorum and Gingrich need to start netting an impossible number of delegates to overtake Governor Romney," he added.
But while none of the remaining candidates can over take Romney, they could do enough damage to keep him from winning the necessary delegates.
“I don't see how Romney can amass enough delegates to be the nominee by the time the primaries are over. That doesn't mean it'll go all the way to the convention,” said Smith, who spent the last week with Gingrich in Alabama and Mississippi.
The possibility of the candidates cutting a deal between the end of the primaries in mid-June and the August convention makes some Republicans nervous — the maneuvers could be viewed as the kind of backroom deals that dominated early 20th century politics. The last brokered GOP convention was in 1948, resulting in the nomination of Thomas Dewey (who went on to lose to Harry Truman).
However, a deal among the candidates would give Gingrich more power. He’s widely disliked by the GOP establishment, many of whom would do anything to keep him from being the nominee. But in a meeting between the four contenders he could be a major power-broker and possibly ally with Santorum to help make one of them the nominee.
On the other hand, if Romney is close to 1,144 delegates he might be able to woo Paul to help him become the nominee.
Romney and Paul have formed a close friendship on the campaign trail and it's possible the Texas congressman would help him lock up the nomination.
But the combination of Gingrich's plan to block Romney along with his losses in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday — two states in the South, which is supposed to be his stronghold — could lead to increased pressure for the former Speaker to exit the race.
On Wednesday, prominent conservative blogger Erik Erickson called on Gingrich to drop out.
"It is time for Newt Gingrich to exit. It is time for Santorum v. Romney and let the chips fall where they may. I still think Romney is the nominee. But I think Santorum vs. Romney one on one gives Romney a run for his money he needs to become a candidate conservatives can potentially rally around," he wrote on his RedState blog.
Santorum's campaign has also made subtle hints that it's time for Gingrich to go.
"We would obviously never call on anyone to get out of the race," Santorum adviser Hogan Gidley said on CNN Tuesday night. "But the fact of the matter is if Newt Gingrich wasn't in the race, we wouldn't just be beating Mitt Romney in these other states, we'd be beating him badly."
Gingrich, however, has made no indication he's considering dropping out.
Former Rep. Bob Walker (R-Pa.), Gingrich’s national campaign chairman, said that a contested convention where the nominee is decided by the delegates could help the party. But he admitted it wasn’t the ideal situation.
“It would be better for the party to go into the convention with the knowledge of who the nominee is going to be,” he said. "It’d make the convention a good deal smoother.”