March 12, 2012
OPINION AND COMMENTARY
With former Massachusetts Gov.beginning to pull away in the delegate count, Tuesday’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi will either keep his momentum going or force it to a grinding halt. On the eve of the voting, polls show both Southern states too close to call.
Increasingly, Romney has portrayed himself as the inevitable nominee, and there’s a good argument for doing so: he has more than 400 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination, and former Pennsylvania Sen., in second, has fewer than 200. In fact, Romney has more delegates than Santorum, former House Speaker and Texas Rep. Ron Paul combined.
But if Romney fails to win at least one of Tuesday’s primaries – and polls show both states too close to call in a three-way race – Gingrich or Santorum will get a momentum boost and create even more division in the GOP. On the other hand, if Romney can win one or both of these Southern battles, he will have prevailed in what might be considered “foreign” territory for a New Englander by way of the upper Midwest. Clearly, Romney is hoping for the double win.
Both states award their delegates proportionately, which means that if it’s a close three-way finish, all the candidates will come away with a solid delegate count. But popular-vote wins for Romney in deep in the heart of Dixie may well propel him forward into a string of victories later this month and into early April.
Santorum has other plans, of course. He’s hoping to win both Mississippi and Alabama on Tuesday, which would give him even more momentum heading into a probable victory in the Missouri caucuses this coming Saturday. If Romney is shut out in the South and falls flat in Missouri, that could make the March 20 contest in Illinois -- a direct election, open primary format – a borderline “must win” for the Romney campaign. Current polls in the Land of Lincoln show Romney with a slight but not insurmountable lead; certainly a string of Santorum victories leading up to the Illinois vote could whittle away at Romney’s lead.
Meanwhile, Gingrich finds himself in a position to either regain relevance in the race or fade into the No. 3 spot for as long as he remains a candidate. The former speaker should be competitive in the March 24 Louisiana primary, but, after that, it’s unlikely he can win another state as long as both he and Santorum are in the race. But if Santorum finishes third in both Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday, he will need to win big Saturday in Missouri or face the possibility that he may be the next candidate to exit the field. If that happens, look for Gingrich to come out swinging at Romney.
As for Paul, he continues to accumulate a handful of delegates here and there and could end up being a major player at the Tampa convention if Romney is denied the first-ballot nomination. The likelihood of a brokered convention will be lessened if Romney pulls out a pair of Southern wins on Tuesday, but if he comes in second or third behind any combination of Santorum and Gingrich, the 200 or so delegates Paul will have by convention time may turn out to be the most important prize of all for Romney – if he can manage to convince the wily Texan to support him.
We’ll know more come Wednesday morning, and the results from Tuesday will determine the extent of that knowledge. For one day, though, the next twist in the Republican presidential drama rests with Dixie.
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