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Gingrich Takes His Stand in Dixieland

 

Gingrich Takes His Stand in Dixieland

"Both boys said a lot of things I agree with, but it's the way Newt said it that I think has me going with him…"

-- Previously undecided Jefferson County, Ala. voter Obie Evans talking to the Birmingham News after hearing speeches by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at a GOP forum.

The current Republican nominating process has done serious damage to the old notions about “must-win” races and momentum.

Fourth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire? No problem. You can still win South Carolina by 12 points. Thirty-three points off the lead in Florida and 40 points back in Nevada in the same week? No sweat. You can come right back and win caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado.

But if ever there was a “must-win” moment in this rangy race, it’s for Newt Gingrich in today’s Dixie Primary. Gingrich needs a win in one or both of the contests in Alabama and Mississippi and if he does lose one, it had better not be to Rick Santorum.

A week ago today, Santorum suffered a painful loss in Ohio, a bastion of Reagan Democrats right next door to his former home state of Pennsylvania. Coming just one week after a pair of losses in Michigan and Arizona, it might have been the end of the road for the top rival to frontrunner Mitt Romney.

But Santorum stayed alive with a pair of wins in Tennessee and Oklahoma. They were his first wins south of the Mason-Dixon Line and his first wins in elections, rather than caucuses and straw polls.

While Super Tuesday dispelled some of Santorum’s strategy of appealing to factory workers, Catholics and conservative Democrats, it showed that he could overcome cultural differences to dominate with white, evangelical Christians in Appalachia, the South and in the Great Plains.

That means that for Gingrich, a loss to Santorum in either of today’s Deep South contests would spell serious trouble.

Remember, Gingrich’s strategy is to string together victories in six delegate-rich core states of the former Confederacy: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. That would be enough to deny Romney an outright win and give Gingrich the chance to emerge as the dark-horse victor at the Republican National Convention in Florida. He’ll live or die in Dixie.

Santorum faces high stakes too. He still claims that he can win the nomination outright and won’t need a contested convention to get the nomination, but if he finishes third in these deeply Republican states behind Gingrich and Romney, that proposition would look more doubtful.

If Santorum can beat Gingrich on red clay, then the former Pennsylvania senator might get his chance to go head-to-head with Romney. If he shows poorly, though, Santorum’s demand that conservatives ditch Gingrich and line up behind him will ring hollow.

While Santorum trailed Romney in a head-to-head matchup in the latest Wall Street Journal poll, his last, best argument is that he can impose some order among conservatives to decisively defeat Romney in time to prevent a five-month fiasco that ends with a melee in Tampa.

With those stakes in mind, here’s a look at the two races today:

Alabama Republican Primary

-- 50 delegates

-- 21 are awarded from the state’s seven congressional districts, three per district (outright majority wins all three district delegates, plurality win gets two, with one for the runner-up)

-- 26 are awarded proportionately based on statewide vote share (winner-take-all above 50 percent)

-- Three Republican National Committee members go to convention as automatic, unbound delegates.

-- Open primary

-- Presidential, state and local primary races

-- 552,155 votes cast in 2008 (Huckabee 41%, McCain 37%, Romney 18%, Paul 3%)

-- Polls close 8 pm EDT


Alabama Primary Coverage: Track the Results in Real-Time


Counties to Watch

Jefferson and Shelby

Alabama’s largest city, Birmingham, is reliably Democratic, but the rest of Jefferson County and suburban Shelby County to the east are the keys to victory in Alabama. They may produce 90,000 combined GOP votes today. If Mitt Romney aims to win the state, he will need to win widely in Jefferson, home to some of the wealthiest suburban enclaves in America, and keep it close in Shelby. But unlike in non-Southern states, Gingrich can challenge Romney for the votes of mainstream, suburban GOPers.

Mobile and Baldwin

These coastal counties are the soul of Alabama establishmentarianism. Relatively wealthy thanks to many generations of oil and shipping revenue, this part of the state is a combination rig workers, deck hands and Southern gentry. But the watchword for all of them is business. This should be the best part of the state for Romney, who should be aiming for half of the 70,000 or so votes here. If he falls short here, he’ll be unable to catch up.

Madison, Limestone and Morgan

Huntsville in Madison County is the birthplace of America’s space program, but that’s not the only reason NASA enthusiast Gingrich has been courting votes here. It’s also in the upstate, Appalachian region of the state and not far from the northwest Georgia that Gingrich once called home. While Romney will likely score well with the highly educated, upscale workers of Huntsville, Gingrich will look to best Santorum in the suburbs and outlying counties near. There may be a combined 70,000 votes here. If Gingrich scores here, he will be well on his way to a win.

Montgomery and Elmore

Montgomery, state capital is predominantly Democratic and the voters are mostly black. But there are a lot of Republicans there and in suburban Elmore. While Santorum has prospered in other minority-Republican districts, so too has Romney. One problem for Santorum, as Alabamian Quin Hillyer has pointed out, is that socially conservative Democrats will be lured by contested state races on their side and not be able to vote for their preferred GOPer.

Tuscaloosa, Cullman and Walker

While the eastern suburbs of Birmingham are upscale and focused on commuters and retail stores, the western side of the city is very much in keeping with the city’s industrial heritage. This string of counties is home to a lot of blue-collar workers and loaded with evangelical Christians. If Santorum can keep it close in more populous areas, this is where he could gain some ground on his rivals.

Hidden Gems: Houston and Coffee

With likely more than 30,000 votes, the southeast corner of the state, including the cities of Dothan and Enterprise and neighboring counties Geneva and Dale, could be the pivot point for the Alabama election. Gingrich did well across the border on Florida and in Georgia, but these are fiercely faithful folks, so Santorum might find a way in.


Mississippi Republican Primary

-- 40 delegates

-- 12 are awarded from the state’s four congressional districts, three per district (outright majority wins all three district delegates, otherwise proportional with a 15 percent threshold)

-- 25 are awarded proportionately based on statewide vote share (winner-take-all above 50 percent)

-- Three Republican National Committee members go to convention as automatic, unbound delegates.

-- Open primary

-- Presidential, state and local primary races

-- 143,286 votes cast in 2008 (McCain 79%, Paul 4%)

-- Polls close 8 pm EDT


Mississippi Primary Coverage: Track the Results in Real-Time


Counties to Watch

Hinds

The state’s capitol and largest city, Jackson in Hinds County, and its suburbs are the main battleground for the Republicans seeking Mississippi votes. The big prize in the region is Rankin County to the east, and neighboring Madison County. Here’s what makes Mississippi so interesting. In the largest pool of GOP voters, the candidates all have great strengths. Romney does well with upscale suburbanites. Santorum does well with downscale voters and evangelical Christians. Metro Jackson has plenty of all those things. It also has lots of pride in its status as one of the finest cities in the South. That advantages Gingrich, who is running to the right of Romney but more moderate than Santorum.

Harrison and Jackson

Biloxi, Gulfport and Pascagoula have seen a lot of attention from all the candidates. These is an industrial region for oil, fishing and tourism. It’s also home to a lot of wealthy retirees and coastal elites. It’s no coincidence that the candidates have all played up their energy policies here.

DeSoto

DeSoto County is a heavily Republican suburb of Memphis and Santorum did very well in Metro Memphis last week. This is the buckle of the Bible Belt, and should be good to the champion of social conservatism But, unlike the rest of Metro Memphis, this is a majority-Republican county. Results here will be revealing for Santorum.

Forrest and Pearl River

Forrest County, home to Hattiesburg, and the communities south along Interstate 59 into Pearl River County, including Lumberton, Poplarville and Picayune and even over to the west side of the gulf coast in Hancock County are indicative of the places where Gingrich will need to win big in order to be competitive. He won lots of small towns and rural counties to run up the score in Georgia and offset Romney gains in urban areas.

Hidden gem: Lauderdale County

Lauderdale County on the Alabama border is home to Naval Air Station Meridian. There are tons of GOP votes here relative to the rest of the state outside Metro Jackson and the coast. With lots of Yankees stationed here, it could be a place for Romney and Santorum to cut into Gingrich’s regional advantage.


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 serves as the host of "Power Play" on FoxNews.com and makes daily appearances on the network including "America Live with Megyn Kelly," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace." Most recently, Stirewalt provided expert political analysis during the 2012 presidential election.

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