The presidential candidates are all facing high stakes, but for different reasons, on Tuesday as Mississippi and Alabama hold their primary contests.
Mitt Romney needs his first win in a true southern state to show he can excite a central element of the GOP base. Rick Santorum needs to prove to Newt Gingrich that it’s time for him to get out, giving the former senator a clear shot at Romney. And Gingrich needs a win — anywhere.
In Mississippi, where 40 delegates are at stake, polls show Gingrich with a slight edge over Romney, while Santorum trails a few points behind. To the east, 50 delegates are up for grabs in Alabama, where Romney, Gingrich and Santorum are locked in a three-way statistical tie, with Ron Paul in a distant fourth place.
“People are really pumped up,” said Bill Armistead, the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party. “We are, for once, going to be relevant to a presidential nominating process.”
Another 20 delegates are at stake in Hawaii and nine will be awarded in American Samoa, which will also hold their contests on Tuesday. Little public polling has been conducted in either race, but Romney is believed to be in solid shape to win in Hawaii.
Romney has 454 delegates heading into Tuesday’s primaries, with Santorum in second place with 217, according to a count by The Associated Press. Gingrich is in third with 107 and Paul in fourth with 47. Candidates need 1,144 delegates to clench the nomination.
Here is a look at the stakes each candidate is facing on Tuesday:
The former Massachusetts governor had the momentum coming out of last week’s Super Tuesday contests, where he picked up six of the 10 states — including the pivotal state of Ohio. Those wins followed two other important successes the week before in Michigan and Arizona.
But on every major Election Day of the past few weeks, Romney has hoped a wide-margin win could shut out his rivals for good, and on each occasion he was disappointed.
Romney also has yet to seal the deal in any southern state save for Florida, whose electorate much more closely resembles a Northeastern state than the Bible Belt states of Alabama and Mississippi.
Santorum and Gingrich argue Romney’s difficulties in the South stem from doubts about his true conservatism, but his supporters claim that southern Republicans will vote for the party’s nominee no matter the candidate. They also note that while Gingrich has holed up in the South for much of the past month, Romney has his eyes on a much larger map.
“They’ve been working this state a lot longer than he has,” said Alabama Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey (R), who chaired Romney’s Alabama campaign. “Mr. Gingrich, he’s, quote, a southern candidate. Mr. Romney’s been campaigning in a lot of other states that these candidates haven’t been able to do.”
One other factor that could hamper Romney in the South is his Mormon faith, a religion that polls show is distrusted by many southern GOP primary voters — particularly Southern Baptists.
For Santorum, a win in either state is likely to be enough to keep him in the race — especially if it helps him narrow the delegate gap on Romney. But a win in both states would ramp up the pressure within the GOP for Gingrich to bow out, and give Santorum a clean shot at knocking down Romney from the right.
“It’s just a matter of time before this is a two-man race,” said Santorum spokeswoman Alice Stewart. “The reality is, Romney isn’t what the people want. People recognize he’s a moderate.”
The former Pennsylvania senator doesn’t hail from the South, but his social conservatism and religiously-infused rhetoric are a more natural fit in Alabama and Mississippi than in many other places where he has been forced to compete.
Santorum told reporters on Monday that even if he loses both states, he plans to stay in the race, citing the delegate math that is making it more and more difficult for Romney to get the 1,114 delegates needed ahead of the GOP convention.
His advisers also pushed back on the Romney campaign, which argued after Super Tuesday that the delegate count now overwhelmingly favors Romney.
“It’s nothing more than a smokescreen for the fact that he’s unable to energize the base,” Stewart said.
The former House Speaker has only won two states, both of which — South Carolina and his home state of Georgia — are in the South.
Gingrich doesn’t need to put on a southern accent or partake in local food to convince locals that he’s one of them. But he does need to win over those who see him as a weak contender to take on President Obama in the fall.
Proving he can win outside the South is top on his agenda. But losing in the South would inflict even more damage on his careworn campaign.
“Newt has got the advantage coming down to the last 48 hours,” said Henry Barbour, the nephew of former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour and a Romney supporter. “If he doesn’t win either state, I don’t think he has a viable path forward.”
Gingrich’s campaign released his schedule for Wednesday and Thursday, likely to quiet any talk the former Speaker will drop out. He’s set to campaign in Illinois.
Neither Alabama nor Mississippi offers Paul good chances of winning. Most of the caucus states, where Paul traditionally performs well, have already held their contests, complicating Paul’s future in the race.
But the contests are proportional, so Paul will still be able to pick up delegates, giving him a stronger standing heading into the August convention.