Alabama and Mississippi threw former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum a lifeline Tuesday, knocking Newt Gingrich on his heels and the Republican presidential nomination at least temporarily out of Mitt Romney's reach.
The twin Southern victories will help Santorum frame the contest going forward as a two-man race against Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has won more states and delegates than any other candidate.
Gingrich, who tried to position himself as the South’s prodigal son after winning South Carolina and his home state of Georgia, will face mounting pressure to exit the race. The former House speaker spent more time in Alabama and Mississippi than any of his rivals. But Santorum has stolen Gingrich's base out from under him, having also defeated him last week in Oklahoma and Tennessee.
“No question, Santorum has emerged as the conservative challenger to Romney, while Romney remains a weak front-runner no matter how you play the expectations,” said Greg Mueller, a conservative Republican strategist. “He is having trouble energizing conservatives when choices like Santorum and Gingrich are in the race.”
A super PAC bankrolled by Romney’s allies heavily outspent Santorum and Gingrich, and the former corporate executive also enjoyed broad support from the party establishment, including all seven of the Republican elected statewide officials in Mississippi.
Santorum is relishing his role as the underdog. “We did it again,’’ Santorum told a cheering crowd in Louisiana, which will vote on March 24. “Who would have ever thought, in the age of media we have in this country today, that ordinary folks across this country can defy the odds day in and day out.’’
Just before the primaries, Santorum and Gingrich released memos arguing that the race is far from over, and the Romney campaign called Santorum’s argument “pure fantasy, or vanity, or both.’’
According to Santorum’s team, the current delegate estimates don’t take into account friendly conservatives who are not locked into voting for Romney and will participate in the forthcoming delegate selection process. If Romney falls short of the 1,144 delegates required to lock down the nomination, Santorum could win at a contested convention.
“The reality is simple: The Romney math doesn’t add up, and he will have a very difficult time ever getting to a majority of the delegates,” the memo said. “The situation is only going to get worse for them and better for Rick Santorum as time passes. Simply put, time is on our side.”
A buoyant Santorum pushed up the deadline in his victory speech Tuesday night. “We’re campaigning everywhere there are delegates because we’re going to win this nomination before the convention,’’ he said. In a sign of his confidence, he'll be in Puerto Rico on Wednesday and Thursday, reaching out to the Hispanic voters who go to the polls on Sunday and will make up a key swing vote in November.
While Romney wasn’t expected to win in the Deep South, polls indicated that neither Alabama nor Mississippi was totally out of his reach, and he boasted a huge financial and organizational advantage over competitors widely perceived as implausible nominees.
Exit polls showed 46 percent of primary voters in Alabama and 50 percent in Mississippi view Romney as the candidate most likely to beat President Obama. Majorities in both states also named the economy as their top priority, the issue the former corporate executive claims as his wheelhouse.
Yet Romney chose not to spend any money on advertising in Mississippi and little in Alabama, leaving it up to his allies' super PAC to fill the airwaves. Restoring Our Future knocked Santorum as a Washington insider in Mississippi but didn’t go after Gingrich at all. Romney also skipped forums attended by Gingrich and Santorum this week in Biloxi, Miss., and Birmingham, Ala.
A case can be made that once again, Romney let a chance to shut down the nomination battle slip through his fingers. To be fair, though, neither state looked friendly to a Mormon candidate from Massachusetts. According to exit polls, evangelical Christians made up 80 percent of primary voters in Missisippi and 74 percent in Alabama.
Exit polls also showed most voters in both states don’t think Romney’s positions are conservative enough. On one specific issue, 70 percent of the voters in Mississippi said abortion should be illegal. That’s a tough crowd for Romney, who once favored abortion rights.
“The demographics in the Deep South do not favor Romney, and with relatively few delegates, there’s not a great return on investment,’’ said Republican consultant John Keast, a former chief of staff to Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker when he served in the House. “He’s tried to play it safe, and I think that’s smart. The risk trumps the rewards.’’
Romney was still expected to pick up delegates from caucuses Tuesday in Hawaii and America Samoa. Before Tuesday’s contests, Romney was the far-and-away leader with 454 delegates, according to the Associated Press. Santorum had 217, Gingrich had 107 and Ron Paul had 47.
“In what should be a rough week he’s still going to pick up some delegates,’’ said Henry Barbour, a Mississippi Republican Party leader and member of the Republican National Committee who backs Romney. “To be clear, Romney was the underdog in Tuesday's primaries.’’