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Right Turn
Posted at 08:45 AM ET, 03/13/2012

Path to the nomination: Santorum in the South

The polls in the GOP primary in Mississippi and Alabama are all within the margin of error, but in most polls, Rick Santorum is in third in both states. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. And if he loses both races, he will have a tough time keeping his campaign credible.

We can imagine a number of explanations for Santorum’s failure to pull ahead after his win in Kansas and for Mitt Romney’ unexpectedly strong performance in states the campaign never dreamed he’d win. For one thing it may be that voters are tiring of the race. Seeing that Romney has essentially an insurmountable delegate lead, they may vote to end the primary and pivot to the general election face-off.

It may also be that Santorum just doesn’t play well in the South. He came in third in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia. Although he certainly doesn’t lack for social conservative bona fides, perhaps his overt focus on the Rust Belt is a turn off for Southerners. Or maybe he’s overdone the social issues and not presented a clear enough economic message. Or it may be that his intense, combative style of politics just doesn’t play well there.

It is also true that Newt Gingrich runs strongest in the South, having won South Carolina and Georgia. It may be that Gingrich took over Santorum’s constituency there. With some some regional affinity thrown in, Gingrich offers whatever Santorum does plus a level of personal connection with voters.

In any event, if Santorum doesn’t win both states (on which he focused and spent considerable time) it is a problem; If he loses both it’s a disaster. (His super PAC reportedly has spent $500,000 to 600,000 on the two states.) He has spent three days in each state, compared to a total of 10 for Gingrich and two in each state for Romney. It’s hard to argue Santorum lacked the time and resources to win. And besides the “I lost, but . . .” excuses are wearing thin.

In that case, having failed to win in the Northeast, the Rust Belt and the South, he would become the candidate only of the rural, socially religious Midwest. You can’t build a race around that sliver of the electorate.

Should Santorum come in behind Gingrich in one or both races, the former speaker of the House will certainly lay claim to the mantle as the most viable not-Romney candidate. From a delegate standpoint (90 total are at stake in the South), Santorum could lose most of his lead. Certainly, he would wave good-bye to any chance of chasing Gingrich out of the race.

And what about Romney? He figures to do very well in Hawaii and American Samoa that have a combined 29 delegates. A win in either Mississippi or Alabama would be seen as a big upset and provide him with another batch of delegates. Even close second-place finishes would beat expectations and likely give him another win in the day’s delegate total.

As fierce Romney critic Philip Klein puts it, a win in either state for Romney “ would be a big deal and would be the first solid indication that even people who normally wouldn’t be inclined to support him are beginning to get behind him as the inevitable nominee.”

Unfortunately for Santorum, he’s had a ragged couple of days. There was the “we know we can’t win the delegate race” memo. And then sounding just a tad like Sarah Palin, who boasted of her national security experience as head of the Alaska national guard, Santorum proclaimed that he was the only candidate that had “any experience as commander-in-chief.” Byron York noted dryly, “Santorum has of course never been president, and he has also never been a governor, in charge of a state’s national guard forces. Asked about the commander-in-chief reference, campaign spokeswoman Alice Stewart said later, ‘What he meant to say is that he is the only one who has the experience to be commander-in-chief.’ Stewart said Santorum was referring specifically to his service on the Senate Armed Services Committee.” Even that claim is a stretch since Gingrich served as speaker of the House. Does Santorum really think that serving on a committee six years ago gives him some special credentials?

Next to the results, the most important thing tonight will be Santorum’s speech. Does he whine about being outspent and claim losses are great moral victories? Does he come off as embittered or does he show some grace? And, most of all, does he go to the trouble to think about his remarks, prepare them in advance and deliver a coherent message that would communicate gravitas rather than desperation? We’ll see.

By  |  08:45 AM ET, 03/13/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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