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Ohio Loss Raises Stakes for Santorum in Deep South

 

Ohio Loss Raises Stakes for Santorum in Deep South

"Remember when it was Tim Pawlenty who was going to crowd me out, and then remember when it was Michelle Bachman? Then remember it was Herman Cain the first time, and then for a brief moment it was Donald Trump almost. Then it was our good friend Rick Perry. Then it was Herman Cain the second time, and now it's Santorum. You just can't quite get across to them it's alright. There are lots of bunny rabbits that run through, I'm the tortoise I just take one step at a time."

- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich talking to supporters following his Georgia Primary victory.

Mitt Romney hewed out another victory on Super Tuesday, chopping wins out in six of 10 states and edging Rick Santorum in make-or-break Ohio.

With the Ohio win, Romney averted what would have been a disaster. If Santorum had added the Buckeye State to his win column Tuesday, it would have dramatically changed the trajectory of the presidential race.

Santorum certainly solidified his position as the top Not Romney in the race, spreading his three victories across the country – North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee. The Oklahoma and Tennessee victories were also his first primary wins, having won only caucuses up until this week.

Tennessee was made sweeter by the fact that Santorum, a Pennsylvania Catholic, won in a Protestant, Southern state right next door to rival Newt Gingrich’s Georgia stronghold.

But Romney did everything he needed to do. Not only did Romney win the states he should have – Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia and Idaho – but also completed his Ohio comeback and had something of a surprise win in Alaska.

So Super Tuesday didn’t tell Republicans anything they didn’t already know. Frontrunner Romney is still ahead, Santorum is his chief accuser and Gingrich is fading from view. Ron Paul did better than expected against Romney in Virginia and Vermont where Gingrich and Santorum weren’t factors, but saw disappointments in North Dakota, Idaho and Alaska and a light delegate haul for the night.

Santorum looked very much like Mike Huckabee did on Super Tuesday 2008 – some quality wins but no big upsets. But because Republicans decided to prolong their process for this year, the end is much farther away.

Even so, the countdown clock has already stated ticking for second-place Santorum. Primary fatigue has set in among Republicans, who are coming to hate their new, prolonged process. Without a candidate who truly excites them, Republican voters are instead watching flawed candidates spend months exposing each other’s weak spots.

And with little major policy disagreement among them, the attacks have tended mostly to be very personal – questions of character, honesty and integrity.

Time is running out for Santorum to convince Republicans to press on with this brutal journey. And with primaries stacked up for weeks and weeks to come, that argument may get harder for him to make. Republican voters may decide that they want closure more than want an alternative to Romney.

But there is a path for Santorum, and it runs through Alabama and Mississippi.

The Deep South states vote next week and while Romney will draw some votes, the real action there is between Gingrich and Santorum. It’s a big delegate haul, but it’s also the last stand for Gingrich.

While the former speaker did what was needed and notched a big Georgia win, his showing in Tennessee and Oklahoma has cast into question even his status as a regional candidate. Gingrich placed third in Tennessee, but worse for him even trailed Romney and Santorum in places on the Georgia border like Hamilton County, home to Chattanooga.

Gingrich scored with Deep South counties even amid his Florida loss, but there was no good news for him in Tennessee.

If Santorum can defeat Gingrich in Alabama and Mississippi, it would be very hard for Gingrich to argue that he has any path to the nomination, even with his idea of a “final four” all heading to the convention.

If Santorum can knock out Gingrich there and avoid having Romney slip through a divided conservative vote for a victory in either state, the horizon would suddenly be clear for him.

Next week may be decisive in the Not Romney primary that has been raging for nearly a year and if Santorum comes out the clear winner, he might start to consolidate the right in time to deny Romney the nomination.

Santorum had better take a line from Johnny Cash who famously told his wife June: “I’m going to Jackson, and that’s a fact.”


Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First” political news note and hosts “Power Play,” a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.