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Posted at 11:26 PM ET, 03/13/2012

Santorum wins two in the Deep South

Mitt Romney would have dearly loved to have won either Alabama or Mississippi. It would have shut down talk of his “failure to close.” And it would have increased the pressure on Rick Santorum and/or Newt Gingrich to get out of the race. The night was Santorum’s with a win in Alabama and a narrow victory in Mississippi, although he may have inadvertently moved the bar higher than he can clear.

As the results rolled in, the Romney team tried to roll back expectations that had risen in the last couple of days. The candidate was competitive in both states, but in both he had to settle for the third-largest share of the delegates.

Santorum, though failing to gain significant ground in the delegate race, will claim underdog wins (as he did in Minnesota and Colorado) and enjoy a renewed optimism that he can battle on. The wins may give him a boost going into Saturday’s contest in Missouri.

In his victory remarks, an obviously elated Santorum spoke emotionally about “defying the odds,” like America itself. But his speech lacked a clear message, as he rambled on about his travels in Mississippi, the Constitution, gas prices, oil drilling, being outspent, and his coal miner grandparents. In there, too, was a line about free markets and the “centrality of faith in our lives.” He apparently feels compelled to wing these things and thereby fails to maximize his moments.

He then uttered a line he may come to regret. He declared that he “will win the nomination before the convention.” In light of delegate gap, that strained credulity, and moreover, cast him in the role of the party-wrecker and chaos-maker. Expect the Romney team to drive home the message that Santorum isn’t gaining in the delegate race.

Indeed, once Hawaii and American Samoa count their votes, Romney will likely move past the 500-delegate vote mark. Santorum is unlikely to gain more than about 10 votes on Romney in the two southern states and may not win the delegate total for the night.

The silver lining for Romney is that Gingrich, though coming in second in both races, vowed to stay in the race. It is the competition between Gingrich and Santorum that will help keep Santorum’s delegate count low, allowing Romney to maintain or lengthen his lead.

For Romney, Puerto Rico on Sunday (23 delegates, winner-take-all) and Illinois next Tuesday become important both for the combined 92 delegates and the need to squash Santorum’s momentum. Romney inches closer to the nomination, but his rivals certainly won’t be going away any time soon.

By  |  11:26 PM ET, 03/13/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign

 
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