Washington Torn between reality and their political dreams, leading conservatives are defending Mitt Romney's private sector success and acknowledging that his presidential nomination may be inevitable even as they search for a more palatable candidate.
Romney, meanwhile, is marching steadily through South Carolina, unveiling a prominent endorsement and sending a message to his party: It's time to stop bickering.
Not just yet, some conservative leaders say.
"Honestly, it looks like Gov. Romney's nomination is inevitable," said the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas and a supporter of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "Evangelicals, come November, might have to hold their noses and vote for the lesser of two evils. But it's not November yet."
Just over a week before South Carolina's first-in-the-South vote, there are signs that conservatives are struggling with their goal of finding what some would call "the anti-Romney." They appear no more organized in their search for a credible challenger than they were before former Sen. Rick Santorum raised their hopes with his second-place finish in Iowa.
More than 100 conservative leaders, many of them evangelical in their faiths, were set to converge this weekend at the Texas ranch of former state appeals court Judge Paul Pressler to consider their options, if any. One subtext of the discussion could be the terms of any eventual endorsement of the former Massachusetts governor.
Surrogates for each campaign were expected to make presentations and answer questions.
In spite of their reluctance to embrace Romney as the GOP nominee, some conservatives have been drawn into defending him against charges of "vulture" capitalism from rivals Newt Gingrich and Perry. Both are potential recipients of conservative backing in the effort to oppose Romney.
Trying to tap into populist sentiment, Gingrich and Perry accused Romney of being a fat-cat venture capitalist during his days running the private equity firm Bain Capital, saying he laid off workers as he restructured companies and filled his own pockets.
That strategy boomeranged. A long list of conservative leaders who have not endorsed Romney are nonetheless sticking up for his success — former Bush adviser Karl Rove, former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Club for Growth, an array of conservative talk show hosts and even Santorum. Conservative leaders say the attack amounts to an assault on capitalism and the free market system at the heart of their movement.
"It's a sad day in South Carolina and across this country if Republicans are talking against the free market, let me tell you that," said South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a tea party star who has endorsed Romney.
"It's just been foolish," said Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which does not endorse presidential candidates. "They're not doing anything other than setting up the ad base for their (Democratic) opponents."
On that point, the anti-Romney conservatives agree.
"I've not talked to many conservatives that support these attacks on Romney," said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. Evangelicals, he pointed out, support a free market with moral restraints and generally wouldn't object to Romney's success at Bain. "I don't think they see that as the real issue. It sounds more like something the Democrats might bring up."
It's a stark turnabout from last week, when speculation crackled through conservative ranks over whether Santorum could capture support from the large chunk of Republicans who aren't behind Romney.
Post-Iowa, things went sour for this group. Romney's second-in-a-row win in New Hampshire on Tuesday solidified his standing atop the GOP field. He was followed in that race not by Santorum but by Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Gingrich and Perry also drew only tepid support in the opening contests.
Now, everyone's looking to South Carolina's Jan. 21 primary as potentially the last stand for the anti-Romney crowd.
"He is not anything near conservative enough," said Rock Hill, S.C., resident Carlene Madison, 54, shaking her head and making an unpleasant face.
Polling shows Romney gaining ground in South Carolina. A poll conducted Jan. 4-5 by CNN/Time/ORC International showed Romney with the support of 37 percent of the state's likely Republican primary voters, up from 20 percent a month earlier. He won Iowa with only 25 percent of the vote and New Hampshire with a more robust 38 percent.
Romney also won the endorsement this week of former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, a favorite of conservatives for his consistent criticism of President Barack Obama's foreign policy.
Romney has a difficult history with South Carolina's Republican voters, who are some of the nation's most conservative. In exit polling from the 2008 Republican presidential contest there, 60 percent of primary voters said they were born-again Christians. Romney, whose Mormon faith is not considered a Christian denomination by some, carried just 11 percent of their votes, fewer than his 15 percent tally overall. Mormons consider themselves Christians.
Conservatives looking to back someone else have a heavy workload in a compressed period of time. Romney's closest rival, Santorum, is 18 points behind in South Carolina, followed by Gingrich, Paul, Perry and Huntsman, according to the CNN/Time/ORC International poll. Six percent are undecided, the survey found.
Jeffress, the Baptist minister, who once called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a cult and doesn't consider it a Christian faith, said he is skipping the Texas conference of conservatives but might eventually recommend voting for the former Massachusetts governor.
His rationale: "It's probably better to embrace a non-Christian like Romney, who embraces biblical values like the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage, rather than a professing Christian like President Obama, who embraces unbiblical positions."
Associated Press writers Shannon McCaffrey and AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll in South Carolina contributed to this report.