Southern swing could help Romney by elevating Gingrich

at 02:15 PM ET, 03/07/2012

The South doesn’t like Mitt Romney very much.

The South is Mitt Romney’s best friend right now.


Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during a Super Tuesday rally on Tuesday, March 6, 2012 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Those two statements, while seemingly at odds with each other, might both be true in the coming weeks.

While Romney has shown a complete inability to win Southern states (a quirky race in Virginia aside), a succession of Southern states holding contests in the weeks ahead could actually play right into his hands by elevating Newt Gingrich back to the level of serious contender.

And if that happens, Rick Santorum’s path to victory gets much tougher.

A look ahead shows how it might happen.

Gingrich has won both of the Deep South states that have voted so far — South Carolina and Georgia — and the remaining ones will all vote in the next three weeks.

The biggest contests next Tuesday are a pair of primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. The Louisiana primary follows 11 days later, on March 24.

These three primaries constitute about half of the major contests over the next month, so they will be focal points.

Does Gingrich win all of them? That remains to be seen.

What we know right now is that he has turned in very impressive victories in both Georgia and South Carolina, winning both by double digits. He also finished within six points of Santorum in Oklahoma — a kind of hybrid between a Southern state and a Midwestern one — which is a respectable showing given his lack of traction in recent weeks.

Overall, Gingrich won almost as many delegates (72) as Santorum did (84) on Super Tuesday. That‘s in large part because he did so well in his home state, but it also suggests his campaign is hardly dead.

And now, as the Post’s Krissah Thompson reports, Gingrich is shifting resources out of Saturday’s Kansas caucuses to focus on the Deep South contests.

This is why we’re seeing the push from the Santorum campaign to try to get Gingrich out of the race; they know he has a good shot at winning just as many delegates as the former Pennsylvania senator over the course of the next couple weeks, in large part because of the South.

And the more Gingrich takes delegates that might otherwise have gone to Santorum, the tougher it will be for the conservative movement to rally around either of them, the bigger delegate lead Romney will build, and the more inevitable he will become.

Now, there is a case to be made that this isn’t all good for Romney.

Illinois is about the only state that looks favorable to Romney over the next several weeks, and Santorum has a good shot at winning the Kansas and Missouri caucuses.

Also, the more Romney loses in the South, the more it looks like he’s got serious problems with the conservative base. And given how many Southern states are upcoming, that message is likely to be driven home again and again.

Romney has now finished second in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Oklahoma, and the panhandle of Florida was the one part of that state where he performed poorly in his big victory.

Also, if Gingrich returns to prominence, it may just split up the delegates more and more and further harm Romney’s chances of winning a majority before the GOP convention.

But the more immediate concern for Romney’s team is making their candidate into the clear frontrunner, and the odds of an open convention, despite the fantasies of many a political junkie, are still pretty remote.

Even if Romney can’t win in the South, having Gingrich win over Santorum would be a pretty nice consolation prize for his campaign going forward.

 
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