Republicans are looking to the South for some clarity in their presidential nomination battle, with voters in Mississippi and Alabama headed to the polls Tuesday in what looks to be another close-fought pair of contests.
The polls closed at 8 p.m. ET in both states, but both contests were too close to predict a winner based on early results.
Surveys of the two states show the top three GOP presidential candidates all within points of each other, setting up another high-tension election night in the hard-fought GOP campaign.
A win in one or both of the primaries could validate the continued presence of either Gingrich or Rick Santorum in the race, signaling their ability to coalesce conservative voters around their candidacies. For Mitt Romney, a victory in what he admitted was “a bit of an away game” could finally sew up the nomination.
For all the excitement among local officials that their primaries would finally matter, turnout at the polls was light in the morning, well down from contests four years ago.
In Mississippi, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann continued to report light turnout into the afternoon.
“After checking with staff positioned across the state, light turnout is being reported,” Hosemann said in a statement.
Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman said that while thundershowers drenched the northern part of the state, she didn't expect weather to seriously impede turnout.
But Chapman said she she believed that "a really great day" would still show lower turnout than the Republican primary in 2008, or even the previous record-holder, 1992's nominating contest.
"We're very blessed and fortunate because there's not a lot of issues going on," Chapman said.
Each campaign saw signs for optimism headed into Tuesday’s events. Supporters of Gingrich — who has largely staked his campaign on a Southern strategy dependent on wins Tuesday night — say they believe the contests could provide a pivot point in the campaign.
“If he can win [both races], he is definitely back in the hunt,” said Jabo Waggoner, an Alabama state senator who serves as chairman of Gingrich’s campaign. Waggoner went on to predict a win for the former House Speaker, crediting Gingrich’s vigorous campaigning throughout the state.
“I feel real good about Alabama. I think he’s going to have a real positive,” Waggoner said.
Gingrich himself has said that if he’s able to win a significant portion of delegates in the Deep South primaries — including upcoming contests in Louisiana and Texas — it could keep Romney from reaching the 1,144 necessary to secure the GOP nomination.
“With Rick and me together we are really slowing [Romney] down, with some help, frankly, from Ron Paul,” he said during an interview on the “Rick & Bubba” syndicated radio show. “And I think if you look at — the country is sort of saying, a majority is saying 'not Romney.' The biggest block is saying 'Romney,' but it’s not a big enough block to be a majority. We now are beginning to think he will literally not be able to get the delegates to get the nomination.”
Santorum, meanwhile, has argued that no matter what the outcome, the primaries should buoy his efforts. A surprise win in the Deep South would give him more credibility to argue that he is the conservative standard-bearer in the race, while hurting Romney’s ability to gather crucial delegates. A Gingrich victory, meanwhile, could be chalked up to the favorable demographics for the former Speaker and continue to undercut Romney’s inevitability argument.
“I don’t think we have to win, I just think we have to continue to do well,“ Santorum said while campaigning in Tuscaloosa, according to CBS News. “I’m going into Newt’s backyard, and obviously Gov. Romney [is] coming off of a big Super Tuesday. We’ve got to come in here and do well, and I think from all the polls we’re doing very well. It’s a very tight contest. The math going forward is going to be better for us.”
Santorum’s campaign also touted the vote of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, although the Republican stopped short of a full endorsement. Still, the acknowledgment that Santorum had won over a key figure in the state was an encouraging sign for a campaign that has trailed his competitors in lawmaker endorsements.
Romney, meanwhile, continued to characterize the contests as stepping stones toward his increasingly inevitable nomination.
“We have a selection process. We are in the middle of it. I am leading it strongly. I’m going to continue to lead it. And you are going to see me getting the delegates I need to become the nominee,” Romney said on Fox News.
The former Massachusetts governor went on to say he “absolutely” does not need a win in either of the states.
“John McCain didn’t win either of these states, Alabama or Mississippi,” Romney said of the Arizona senator in the 2008 race. “We are delighted that we are doing so well there. The polls are suggesting it is kind of a three-way tie. It is an away game for me.”
Some observers believe if Romney can pull out a victory in the Deep South, it will lay to rest doubts about conservatives’ willingness to coalesce around his campaign.
Romney opted against scheduling an Election Night campaign rally for the first time in the race, however, which was seen as a sign he’s worried about the results. The Romney campaign has not said whether the former governor might speak in the event of a win.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the region are enjoying the increased attention on their states’ contests, which are usually a non-factor in primary races traditionally decided by Super Tuesday. Alabama GOP Chairman Bill Armistead said Tuesday he saw the contest as a way to press candidates on issues most important to Southern voters.
“We’ve had all three of the top candidates in Alabama, and they’re all speaking about jobs and the economy, and, of course, the fuel prices is another thing that we want to talk about simply because we’re seeing a rapid increase in the fuel prices today, although, you know, when it gets to November, no one knows what’s going to be going on at that time” Armistead said. “But I think today Alabama is going to make a strong statement as to who we think will be the favored candidate to receive the Republican nomination.”
Tuesday night’s intrigue is not contained just to the competitive presidential races. Hawaii and American Samoa will also be holding caucuses — both widely expected to be easy wins for Romney. The combined 29 delegates available in those contests could help Romney offset any loses in Alabama and Mississippi, whose 50 and 40 delegates, respectively, are rewarded proportionally.
Some sitting members of Congress also face stiff primary challenges in Tuesday’s election. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) has seen a barrage of attack ads from a Texas-based super-PAC that aided in the primary defeat of Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) last week. The 11-term congressman, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, has not faced a competitive election in years. But recent allegations of ethics violations and outside spending on behalf of his primary challenger, state Sen. Scott Benson, could make hitting the 50 percent-plus-one vote threshold necessary to avoid a runoff election difficult for the longtime lawmaker.
Meanwhile, House Ethics Committee Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) is facing a similar challenge by the super-PAC, called the Campaign for Primary Accountability. Local businessman Dean Young has found traction criticizing Bonner’s support for the 2008 financial industry bailout and his votes to increase the debt ceiling.
In the state’s fifth district, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) is also looking at a tough battle with ex-Rep. Parker Griffith, a former Democrat who switched parties and lost to Brooks in 2010. The incumbent congressman said Tuesday he felt confident about his chances.
“Things look pretty good. The feedback we’re getting, anecdotal though it may be, from voters around the 5th district is very positive,” Brooks said to the Huntsville ABC affiliate.
— Josh Lederman contributed.
This story was last updated at 8:05 p.m.