By Niall Stanage - 03/12/12 09:00 AM EDT
Newt Gingrich will be fighting for his political life — or at least for the survival of his presidential campaign — when Republican voters in Alabama and Mississippi go to the polls Tuesday.
Gingrich needs to win at least one, and perhaps both, of the Deep South states if he is to sustain the only credible remaining argument for his candidacy: that the region at the cultural heart of the GOP is behind him.
Rick Santorum and his team are already encouraging Gingrich to exit the race if he performs poorly on Tuesday.
Santorum said during an interview with Bloomberg Television on Friday that “after this Tuesday, this will be a two-person race and we can get down to the business of deciding whether we want a conservative or a moderate to go up against Barack ObamaBarack ObamaDems discuss dropping Wasserman Schultz Mellman: Parsing the polls LA mayor: 'Donald Trump will not win California' MORE. We feel good that it’s now narrowing to a two-person race.”
Such a scenario offers Santorum probably his only realistic hope of derailing Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor has compiled a significant delegate lead, has won 15 states to Santorum’s eight and continues to enjoy a financial advantage.
“The only thing left that can really shake up this race would be if Newt got out,” Cliff Sims, an Alabama Republican activist who runs the Yellow Hammer Politics website, told The Hill. “All these campaigns are about momentum. If Santorum were able to say, ‘I have won in what is supposed to be Gingrich territory,’ that would be big.”
Such an outcome is far from assured for the former Pennsylvania senator, however. Polling in Alabama and Mississippi has been both scant and volatile.
Of four polls taken in Alabama last week, three gave the lead to different candidates, the margins varying from a 9-percentage-point Romney advantage to a 4-percentage-point Santorum edge. The other two polls both showed Gingrich leading by a single percentage point.
In Mississippi, a Rasmussen poll released Friday suggested Romney led by 8 percentage points. The finding was met with considerable skepticism by experts in the Magnolia State and elsewhere.
Santorum will be hoping that his performance on Super Tuesday, when he won in Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota — and came within a hair of beating Romney in Ohio — has given him enough momentum to carry the day in Alabama and Mississippi. To buttress his case, the super-PAC supporting his candidacy, the Red, White and Blue Fund, has promised to spend more than $500,000 in advertising in the two contests.
Gingrich, however, is not giving up without a fight. He appeared at five campaign events in Alabama Saturday and moved on to Mississippi on Sunday, attending a church service and, shortly afterward, a campaign rally in the city of Brandon. He has scheduled events in both states Monday and will spend Primary Day in and around Birmingham, Ala.
The former Speaker has also insisted that he is going to stay in the race, come what may. “I just want to set this to rest once and for all: We’re going to Tampa,” he told The Associated Press Friday, referring to the Republican National Convention, which will take place in the Florida city in late August.
Skeptics note, however, that almost all candidates express their total commitment to seeing the fight through to the end — right up until the moment they withdraw from the battlefield.
If Gingrich is defeated on Tuesday “I don’t know what argument he can make to carry on,” said Brian Perry, a Republican strategist in Mississippi. Perry, who is supporting Romney but has no official role with his campaign, cited Gingrich’s argument that he is the candidate of the South, and added that “part of his narrative is lost if he loses in Alabama and Mississippi.”
For Romney himself, the two Deep South primaries present both opportunity and danger. On one hand, he has been careful to downplay expectations, referring to the South in general as an “away game” for him during an interview with an Alabama radio station last week.
Aides have been singing from a similar songbook. Veteran GOP strategist Charlie Black, who has no formal role with the Romney campaign but provides advice informally, told The Hill that he was already looking beyond Tuesday’s states.
“He'll get some delegates,” Black said. “I wouldn’t peg him to win Alabama or Mississippi, but then there's Illinois [on March 20], which will be a really good state for Romney.”
It would be a surprise if Romney won either Deep South primary, never mind both — but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Such an outcome could well bring the nomination process to a de facto close.
On the other hand, sizable defeats for Romney — an outcome that is at least as plausible as victory — would further sharpen questions about his capacity to connect with voters in the GOP’s most loyal and fervent region.
The two states are particularly challenging for Romney because evangelicals — a bloc that has proved troublesome for him in previous contests — are heavily represented in both states.
In the 2008 Republican primaries, exit polls showed that 77 percent of voters in Alabama and 69 percent in Mississippi described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians.
By way of comparison, 73 percent of Republican voters in last week’s Tennessee primary described themselves that way. Santorum bested Romney by 18 percentage points among them.
Perry, the Mississippi GOP strategist, noted that Romney has received endorsements from a number of high-profile Republicans in his state, including Gov. Phil Bryant. This, Perry said, had given him “a lot of traction.”
Perry added: “Demographically, he is an underdog. But there is the opportunity to do well, particularly if Mississippi voters believe he is going to win (the whole thing) and want to get on board.”
Two other contests take place on Tuesday, in Hawaii and American Samoa. But the real action is in the Deep South.
—Josh Lederman contributed to this story.