Alabama, Mississippi primaries could clarify GOP race

ElectionsPoliticsMitt RomneyRick SantorumRon PaulCNN (tv network)Republican Party

The Republican presidential candidates' campaigns were downplaying expectations as Alabama and Mississippi voted Tuesday -- an indication of how tight the two primaries are and the importance of momentum on the long road to the GOP convention.

Polls released Monday showed a virtual dead heat between front-runner Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich with Rick Santorum running eight to 10 points behind.

Gingrich, the former House speaker, is under the most pressure to take both states. He has won contests in South Carolina and Georgia, which he represented in Congress for two decades, but has finished third or worse in most contests outside the region.

Santorum is coming off a big win in Kansas on Saturday but would give himself a bigger boost in the battle to be the conservative alternative to Romney if he could beat Gingrich on his home turf.

And a win down south for Romney would finally give him a victory in a region dominated by social conservatives, who have been hesitant to support his candidacy.

Forty-seven delegates are up for grabs in Alabama, with 37 at stake in Mississippi, all being divided proportionally. Both states hold open primaries, which mean Republicans, independent voters and even Democrats can cast ballots in the GOP contests. Hawaii and American Samoa also hold caucuses Tuesday, with 17 delegates to be allocated in Hawaii and six in American Samoa.

Gingrich has campaigned intensively in Alabama and Mississippi over the last week.

"You would think he was running for governor here because of his campaigning, going to restaurants, going to church on Sunday. He is showing up everywhere," Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead said on CNN's "Starting Point" Tuesday morning.

Armistead echoed others' positions that Gingrich has a lot riding on the outcome.

"He's got to do extremely well in Alabama and Mississippi just to stay in the race," he said. 

A top Gingrich adviser wouldn't predict victory Monday night, saying only that her candidate was "competitive" in the races.

"There's no must-win state, there's a must-win election this year. And the place that Newt can really win and we see it in our polling also is on the debate stage with Barack Obama," Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway said. 

Romney's campaign has been holding up its large lead in delegates as a reason for Gingrich and Santorum to get out of the race.

Romney is far short of the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination -- he holds a 459-203 lead over Santorum, with Gingrich at 118 and Ron Paul at 66, according to a CNN delegate estimate.

Another GOP strategist said he sees the delegate race as evidence that Santorum's hopes are dimming.

"Given how far behind Santorum is from Romney with delegates, it looks like that path continues to dim every day, which is very challenging for his campaign to overcome, because they now need to get 65% of the delegates that are still available, and so that path probably doesn't exist, and if it does exist, then it needs to start with real wins and big wins in a hurry," said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.

But Santorum spokeswoman Alice Stewart said Romney's mathematics argument is "not very inspiring."

"What he is doing is, they have put out memos and talked about the fact it would be mathematically impossible for Rick Santorum to come out ahead in this fight, when the truth is that's nothing more than a smokescreen to demonstrate the fact that he is not inspiring the base. He is not in touch with conservatives," Miller told CNN's "AC360°." 

"What we are letting folks know today is the math is still a long way out. Rick is the true conservative in this race. He is inspiring the base. And that's why he has got Mitt Romney up against the ropes."

A leading Republican strategist said that Romney could be the real winner on Tuesday night.

"I continue to think this is fundamentally about a delegate fight, so I'm reluctant to talk about momentum as an important story. But I do think there is a momentum story that could emerge after Alabama and Mississippi if Romney overperforms," said Gentry Colllins, a former political director for the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association.

"Much has been written about Romney's weakness in Southern state contests, and Santorum and especially Gingrich have used a Southern strategy as a basis for arguing they had a pathway to the nomination. On Super Tuesday, Romney took as many delegates out of the Southern states as anyone else. But that story was offset because Gingrich and Santorum weren't on the Virginia ballot, and because the Romney campaign let Tennessee expectations get out of whack.

"But if he adds a win in either Alabama or Mississippi, and wins as many or more delegates than any of the others, he will have shut his opponents' Southern strategy down," added Collins, who ran Romney's 2008 operation but is neutral this time around.

Even if he doesn't win either Alabama or Mississippi, Romney will pick up delegates in both. Add to that a bunch of likely delegates in more moderate Hawaii, and Romney will probably expand his lead.

Romney picked up the endorsement of Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant last week. And while Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said he had voted for Santorum, his office later issued a statement after his vote was interpreted as an endorsement saying, "Governor Bentley views Rick Santorum as the most conservative candidate in the Republican presidential primary. Governor Bentley has chosen not to publicly endorse a candidate. He believes a vote is a personal decision that should be based on a voter's values and principles, not on someone else's opinion."

Romney's been trying out his Southern charm, saying last week on the campaign trail in Mississippi that he was "an unofficial Southerner" and joking that "I am learning to say 'y'all' and 'I like grits,' and things. Strange things are happening to me."

Romney's campaign and a pro-Romney super PAC have combined to spend nearly $2 million to run TV commercials in the two states. Southern comedian Jeff Foxworthy also joined him on the campaign trail Monday.

"I was able to avoid politics for 53 years and somebody said, 'Why in the world would you get into it now?' and the answer is it's too important. Because I love this country," said Foxworthy, campaigning with Romney in Alabama.

But Gingrich threw a new wrinkle into the slow-Romney movement, suggesting that he and Santorum team up to stop the former Massachusetts governor.

"There's a certain advantage I think right now in having both of us tag-team Romney, because neither one of us by ourselves can raise the money to match Romney," Gingrich said on the "Rick and Bubba" radio show in Birmingham.

But Santorum has suggested that he wants Gingrich out of the race so that the anti-Romney movement is no longer split between him and the former House speaker.

"If you go out and deliver a conservative victory for us on Tuesday, this race will become a two-person race," Santorum said last week in Alabama. "And when it becomes a two-person race for the Republican nomination, the conservative will win the nomination."

But if Santorum loses to Gingrich on Tuesday, it undercuts his argument that he's the conservative alternative to Romney.

"Rick Santorum has a little bit of a danger zone," said Republican strategist Chip Saltsman, who managed Mike Huckabee's 2008 Republican presidential campaign. "He had a big win obviously Saturday in Kansas. He got a lot of delegates. Not a lot of coverage because everybody was focused on Mississippi and Alabama.

"If he comes in third in both places, then they're going to say, 'Well, is Newt now the conservative alternative?' And we'll start that story again."

Paul hasn't campaigned over the past week in either Alabama or Mississippi and doesn't appear to be much of a factor in either state.

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