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Conservatives to seek consensus Republican candidate

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - A group of social conservative leaders are to meet in Texas this weekend to try to coalesce around a Republican presidential candidate and avoid a split, sources familiar with the meeting said on Wednesday.

The meeting was prompted by conservatives' desire to avoid what happened in 2008, when former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee won Iowa but quickly faltered when he was unable to unite conservatives behind him.

This year, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has risen with much support from evangelical Christians to come within eight votes of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in Iowa's caucuses on Tuesday.

Many conservatives are skeptical of Romney, believing he is not authentic, but conservative activists insisted the meeting was not about trying to unite around an anti-Romney candidate.

The meeting at a ranch near Brenham, Texas, is to include such social conservative leaders as Gary Bauer, president of the conservative group American Values, and James Dobson, the evangelical Christian leader who founded the Focus on the Family activist group.

"Social conservative leaders have met several times during the nomination battle to compare notes and ideas about various candidates," Bauer said. "Some of those conservative leaders have supported Mitt Romney. Some have supported Newt Gingrich. Some have supported Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. I believe all of those candidates are exceptionally better to lead this great nation, in contrast to the failed presidency of Barack Obama."

But Bob Vander Plaats, an Iowa social conservative leader whose endorsement of Santorum buoyed him in that state, said the goal of the meeting "needs to be to come together to coalesce around Santorum."

(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Bill Trott)

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