WASHINGTON -- The angst within the Republican Party about Mitt Romney's candidacy has risen to such levels that some of the most experienced, influential members of the party are still talking about a late entry into the GOP primary.
"Now normally that's a joke," said a longtime party leader who spoke to The Huffington Post about the possibility of a late candidacy on the condition that he not be identified. "I mean normally that just can't go anywhere. But could it go somewhere now, if [Rick] Santorum continues to be unable to raise money from anybody but Foster Friess, if Newt [Gingrich] won't give Santorum a passing lane, if Romney continues to under-perform? If Ron Paul's 10, 12 or 20 percent just stays static as I expect it to?"
"Now, is that likely to happen? Hell no, it ain't likely to happen. But it's the first time in my life time where there's a real chance," the Republican said.
He identified New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as the one potential candidate who could possibly overcome the fact that a brokered convention -- where the party's delegates would decide in August who the nominee would be -- would in many ways be the ultimate back-room deal, flying in the face of the entire Tea Party ethos.
"He could be the one guy where the Tea Party people, the outsiders, the people who are for turning over the apple baskets, he may be the one where people say, 'Finally our guy got in the race. Isn't this good? We're going to make the establishment take him,'" the GOP leader said.
"I don't see anybody trying to do anything to affect it yet. But you got to be an idiot. If you've ever read a book about how presidents are nominated, you could see this scenario as a possibility," he added. "People are starting to say, 'Damn, I thought Mitt could put this together.'"
A Christie confidant laughed off the speculation, though he added that there has been a "growing chorus" of people talking about the New Jersey governor jumping into the race. Christie endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Romney back in October.
For some time, the only conservatives talking about a late entry into the race have been pundits such as Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard founder. But such talk from a gray-haired big foot in the GOP, in the wake of Romney's losses to Rick Santorum on Tuesday in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, was a sign that anxiety about Romney's weakness as a candidate is getting worse than ever.
The subtext of such worried talk is a turn within the GOP to confront the idea that they may be stuck with President Barack Obama for four more years.
"It's halftime in America. I'm fearful of what the final score is going to be if we let this president start the second half as quarterback," said former GOP presidential candidate and current Texas Gov. Rick Perry in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference Thursday.
Beating Obama has been the animating force of the right since he took office, and animus toward the president was a big part of the reason Republicans swept to power in the House of Representatives in 2010. But Romney's stumbles, and Republican doubts about Newt Gingrich or Santorum's electability if Romney collapses, are combining with a reviving economy to paint a grim political picture for conservatives.
Most Republicans still think Romney will be the nominee, but his claim to be the candidate most capable of beating Obama has been seriously damaged.
Santorum's huge wins Tuesday increased talk of a brokered convention. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), said it is very likely that no candidate will have won the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination by the time the primary is over.
"It's very possible we could get to the convention without a nominee," DeMint said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Thursday.
But DeMint said he did not think a new candidate would get into the race.
"I can't imagine us nominating someone who hasn't gone through this vetting process, unless they all end up just stepping on their own message," he said.
Romney himself answered the question of whether he will get to the convention without a majority of the delegates on Fox Business Thursday, saying, "Anything is possible. I think it's unlikely. I expect that one or the other of us will be able to garner the kind of support necessary to become the nominee and that will allow us, of course, to begin raising money for the general election and to begin campaigning against President Obama."
"I hope I win all the remaining contests," he continued, but added, "I expect that I'll lose a number of states before we actually get to a point where I get the 1,150 delegates that I need."
Such open talk of having three or four of the current candidates campaign all the way to the convention in Tampa, Fla., is a sign that Romney has been seriously weakened by his nasty back and forth with Gingrich in Florida -- which took both men badly off-message -- and by his losses this past week.
"Conservatives don't trust Mr. Romney in part because he gives them little reason to do so," the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote Thursday morning. "The former Massachusetts Governor also isn't winning friends with his relentlessly negative campaign."
"Now his political team's instinct will be to dig into its oppo research and savage Mr. Santorum," the Journal wrote. "This may get Mr. Romney to 50.1% of the GOP delegates, but he'd be a weaker nominee for it. The low GOP turnout in early primary states is one sign of his weakness. What Mr. Romney needs is to make a better, positive case for his candidacy beyond his business resume."
There are now whispers about changes to Romney's senior staff structure in Boston, though it's all speculation at this point. But the absence of dyed-in-the-wool conservatives among Romney's senior brain trust -- who could help Romney get his message right -- is conspicuous. Kristol, in fact, wrote Thursday not about another potential late entry to the GOP race, but instead gave advice to Romney to move his message toward a more robust, policy-heavy direction.
There is also talk of former House Speaker Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Santorum having a tacit agreement to let the other focus on geographical areas where they are strongest -- the South and Rust Belt respectively -- with the overall goal of denying Romney the nomination.
Top Romney aides maintain a calm exterior, saying they knew they were going to take some losses in the contests this past week but decided to focus on primaries and caucuses with big delegate yields (there were no delegates at stake in Missouri's non-binding primary on Tuesday). They also believe that if they had at least won Colorado, where Romney got 60 percent of the vote in 2008 but only 35 percent this time to Santorum's 40 percent, that would have softened the blow.
But Romney is set to take another hit over the next two days at CPAC. The response from the conference's 10,000 attendees to speeches from Romney, Santorum and Gingrich on Friday will be closely watched, as will the results of a straw poll that will be announced Saturday. Romney is not expected to fare very well in the speech or straw poll competitions.
He is, however, expected to win the Maine caucuses, which will be announced on Saturday night as well after a week of voting.
And then there are the higher-stake primaries in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28. If Romney somehow stumbles in one or both of those, all bets are off.
Romney told Fox Business Thursday, "I'd like to win Arizona and Michigan because there are a lot of delegates at stake in both states."
"I'm not expecting a landslide. I can't tell you 100 percent that I'll win. I'm planning on it," he said. "I have not been in my bed since Christmas. So we're working pretty darned hard. And I think people in Michigan and Arizona are going to give me their support."