Spartanburg Herald-Journal, Michael Justus, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney laughs as he meets supporters at Cherokee Trike and More in Greer, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012.

WASHINGTON — Torn between reality and their political dreams, leading conservatives are defending Mitt Romney against attacks on his work in the private sector even as they search for a more palatable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

Their angst is playing out amid a growing sense that Romney's nomination may be inevitable.

The former Massachusetts governor is marching steadily through South Carolina and picking up a prominent conservative's endorsement while sending a message to the GOP: It's time to stop the bickering.

Some conservative leaders say it's not that time just yet. Still, there are signs that conservatives are struggling to find what some would call "the anti-Romney."

More than 100 conservative leaders are set to converge this weekend in Texas to consider what options they may have left.