As Mitt Romney inches toward the Republican Party's presidential nomination, many conservative activists are increasingly focused on a different political prize for 2012: the Senate.
Republicans, who currently have 47 of the 100 Senate seats, are seen as having a good shot of winning control of the upper chamber because they are defending far fewer seats in the November election.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is the clear frontrunner for the party's presidential nomination after victories in the Iowa and New Hampshire nominating contests this month. He can move a big step closer with a win in the January 19 South Carolina primary.
But some supporters of the Tea Party movement and other conservatives distrust Romney, deriding him as a moderate, and they hope to get a few of their candidates into the Senate to serve as a "bulwark" against him or President Barack Obama.
Republicans would need to win four Democratic-controlled seats and successfully defend all their seats to win the Senate. A net gain of three seats would give Republicans control if Romney or another Republican won the White House, as the sitting vice president breaks all tie votes in the Senate.
While Republicans are expected to lose some seats in the House of Representatives, they currently are expected to retain their majority. If the party gains the Senate then even a few conservative senators could have an outsized impact on the 100-member chamber and U.S. politics.
"The Senate gives conservatives their greatest opportunity to have an impact in 2012," said Republican strategist and CivicForumPAC chairman Ford O'Connell. "And the Senate is doubly important because no one should underestimate President Obama, he's the best campaigner I've ever seen."
"Once the Republican presidential nomination process is over," he added, "the real story is going to be the Senate."