Alabama, Mississippi Primaries Could Clarify GOP Race

ElectionsPoliticsMitt RomneyRick SantorumRepublican PartyCNN (tv network)Ron Paul

Can Alabama and Mississippi do what Super Tuesday failed to do -- give the race for the Republican presidential nomination more clarity?

Rick Santorum heads into Tuesday's primaries coming off a big win Saturday in Kansas, where the former senator from Pennsylvania took more than half the vote in that state's caucuses.

For former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who won big in his former home state of Georgia last Tuesday, doing well in the Deep South is crucial to keeping alive his hopes of winning the White House.

And for frontrunner Mitt Romney, the strategy seems to be downplaying expectations and hoping for a better-than-expected finish.

"Rick Santorum hopes to parlay his weekend win in Kansas into a strong Tuesday in Mississippi and Alabama. The idea is to blow up the Gingrich campaign 's Southern strategy and muscle Newt out of the race -- and voila, he's face-to-face with Mitt Romney," CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley said.

As for Romney, "two Deep South wins would be a stunner, driving the race emotionally and mathematically toward the finish line," said Crowley, anchor of CNN's "State of the Union," who added that "it's also not likely."

Super Tuesday was supposed to bring order to a nomination battle that's seen very little. But the 10 contests from coast to coast last week failed to deliver, giving Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, and even Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, something to brag about. So now it's Alabama's and Mississippi's turn.

Forty-seven delegates are up for grabs in Alabama Tuesday, 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 also holds caucuses on Tuesday night, with 17 delegates eventually to be allocated.

Romney, who won a bunch of delegates in contests this past weekend in Guam, the Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands, seems to be downplaying his chances in the Deep South, where social conservative votes tend to dominate the GOP electorate, and where Romney's Mormon faith may be a liability with some voters.

When asked Thursday during an interview on WAPI radio in Birmingham, Alabama, how important it was for him to pick up a Southern state, Romney said, "I realize it is a bit of an away game," adding that, "I am confident we are going to get some delegates."

Not exactly a bold statement.

But 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."

He's been endorsed by both states' governors, and his campaign and a pro-Romney super PAC have combined to spend nearly $2 million to run TV commercials in the two states. And Monday he was joined on the trail by Southern comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who has endorsed Romney.

"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.

Polls of likely Alabama and Mississippi voters released Monday by American Research Group indicated that Romney and Gingrich were all knotted up for the top spot in both states, with Santorum about 10 points behind and Paul in the single digits.

A leading Republican strategist thinks 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," says 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.

And even if he doesn't win either state, Romney will pick up delegates in both Alabama and Mississippi. Add to that what should be a bunch of delegates in more moderate Hawaii, and Romney will most likely expand his lead in the battle for delegates.

Campaigning Monday in Mississippi, Santorum took a jab at Romney, saying "I don't consider this an away game."

While Romney's still far short of the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, he holds a 458-203 lead over Santorum, with Gingrich at 118 and Paul at 66, according to a CNN delegate estimate.

Another GOP strategist sees Santorum's hopes 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.

It appears that Santorum hopes strong finishes will eventually knock Gingrich out of the race and leave him as the only conservative challenger to Romney.

"If you go out and deliver a conservative victory for us on Tuesday, this race will become a two-person race," he said Thursday 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.

Gingrich, who more than any other candidate needs strong finishes on Tuesday, doesn't sound like a candidate about to drop out of the race.

"We're staying in this race because I believe it's going to be impossible for a moderate to win the general election," Gingrich said Thursday in Mississippi.

"I believe if we win Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday, that on Wednesday for about the ninth time, the news media will suddenly be reporting a totally new race. And I believe with your help, I think we can build from there and we can go onto Tampa and win the nomination," Gingrich said Monday in Alabama.

But if he loses both contests, the chorus of Republicans calling for Gingrich to get out of the race will only get louder and louder.

As for Paul, he 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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