Primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, as well as caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa, all take place today, Tuesday, March 13. They follow on the heels of last week’s Super Tuesday split-decision which seemed to give all four candidates the narrative they needed to press on.
This Tuesday much of the media focus will be on the results from Alabama and Mississippi.
There’s no doubt that these two dueling primaries in the South will have a broad impact on the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination. At stake are Alabama’s 50 delegates to Mississippi’s 40, which will be proportionately distributed based on a formula that weighs results from single member congressional districts along with statewide totals.
Republican National Committee rules dictate that most of the primary contests held before April 3rd can not be “winner take all” contests. That means that Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all stand to pick up delegates by the time the results are in tonight.
The one difference is Ron Paul. While he has played a role in many contests so far he has chosen to not actively compete in Mississippi or Alabama.
With the delegate count potentially split-three ways, the bigger story out of tonight will be who leaves the South with the greatest momentum. In addition to Romney, the focus tonight will be on Santorum and Gingrich. The question is which man will emerge as the strongest challenger to the former Massachusetts governor.
Here is what a win in the state’s total popular vote could mean to each campaign:
Mitt Romney: The Real Clear Politics (RCP) average of polls shows Romney ahead by 2 points in Alabama and only behind Gingrich by 2 points in Mississippi. This has exceeded both public perception and the campaign’s own expectations.
A win for Romney in just one of these states could be monumental in reversing the perception that he “doesn’t play well” below the Mason-Dixon line.
Considering the size of the Evangelical and social conservative voting bloc in these states, it will go a long way toward helping to alleviate the intra-party fears that Romney doesn’t connect with the base.
Bolstered by the numbers, Romney has even suggested he will win in Alabama although still professing surprise at his own strength in the region.
Yes, it’s critical that candidates project confidence which campaigning. But by suggesting he might win in Alabama Romney risks having two losses turn into something bigger than if he had stuck to painting himself as the underdog in one of his opponent’s own backyard.
While a win – or two -- in these deeply southern states would give Romney bragging rights that he hasn’t had so far. But a loss now does more damage than it would have had he allowed the narrative from a week ago to stay intact.
Newt Gingrich: In both Mississippi and Alabama Newt Gingrich is polling ahead of Santorum and is virtually tied with Romney.
Gingrich needs to win the popular vote in both states and beat his two challengers to advance his own candidacy into the April contests.
In his own alternate universe, which even fans of the former House Speaker admit he resides in occasionally, Gingrich still believes he is the natural choice to carry anti-Romney mantle. But back in the world of political reality, Gingrich has to confront Rick Santorum’s formidable challenge to the claim that he is the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.
So far, it’s advantage Santorum in Mississippi and Alabama. The former Pennsylvania senator even outperformed Newt in the South on Super Tuesday, winning both Tennessee and Oklahoma, with Gingrich relegated to third place finishes behind Romney in those states. His only win came in state where his political career began: Georgia.
However, Gingrich has worked voters in the region with a familiarity and cadence not unlike an athlete playing on his home-field. And the Gingrich campaign has not been shy about suggesting that their hopes rest on a successful “Southern Strategy.”
Gingrich cannot wait to win a state until the Texas primary – which is scheduled for late May. If he doesn’t win Alabama and Mississippi outright, the calls for him to step aside to benefit Santorum will only intensify and it’s unlikely that he can even hold on until Texas votes.
Santorum: Rick Santorum starts today behind in the polls, but he could finish the night with enough delegates to satisfy a rationale that he enjoyed a “good night.”
Also, for the first time since his impressive three state sweep on February 7, the focus tonight will not be on the Romney vs. Santorum horse race but on whether or not Gingrich will be able to hold-off Romney’s southern offensive.
For Santorum’s part, he has played these two states perfectly. He has campaigned vigorously, using the back drop of the GOP’s electoral heartland to reassert his appeal as a “consistent conservative,” and has effectively deployed his wife Karen as a surrogate. She has been campaigning solo on his behalf – thus completing the picture of Rick Santorum as the poster-child for tradition family values.
Unless Santorum finishes a distant third in either contest, it is difficult to imagine that much harm can come to his campaign if he is not between the top two finishers.
If he is able to beat Gingrich in either contest, he his armed with even more cause to encourage the chorus of his supporters who have been steadily encouraging Newt to drop out of the race.
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Tony Sayegh is a Republican campaign consultant, political analyst and National Correspondent for Talk Radio News Service. You can e-mail Tony at firstname.lastname@example.org.