Deep South primaries offer little hope for Romney, opportunity for Santorum


Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum signs campaign posters during a campaign rally Thursday at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. (BILLY WEEKS/REUTERS)

For Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, the Deep South primaries in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday will be a race for conservative primacy in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination. Unless one of them decisively puts the other away, however, Mitt Romney could be the big winner no matter where he finishes.

While Romney, the establishment front-runner, is counting on a growing sense of inevitability that he will be the nominee, Alabama and Mississippi are two of the last, best chances for Santorum and Gingrich to make their case against each other.

In temperament and tone, Ging­rich has an easier sell in the South: He can “talk Southern” in a way that Santorum can’t. But his personal baggage — a history of marital infidelity and two failed marriages — could be a significant stumbling block among the conservative, family-values voters who make up a large part of the two states’ electorates.

This is particularly true when that record is held up against Santorum’s personal story as a devoted husband and father of seven.

Gingrich has tried to cast Santorum as a bit player in the 1990s Republican revolution that Gingrich led, and in a region where unions are deeply unpopular, the Gingrich campaign has tried to cast Santorum as a pawn of big labor.

At an event this week in Alabama, aides hung a banner proclaiming “Promise of a Newt Day.” Gingrich has been touting his Georgia victory and Southern roots in recent appearances. He has signaled that he does not think he can compete in Kansas, which holds its contest on Saturday, and he is focusing all of his energy on getting a Southern sweep. “Everything between Spartanburg all the way to Texas, those all need to go for Gingrich,” said campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond.

For Gingrich, victories in Mississippi and Alabama could solidify his standing as the preferred choice of Southerners. He is counting on a replay of the outcomes in South Carolina and Georgia, where the former speaker secured his only triumphs. But narrow, or even modest, wins may only serve to feed the narrative that Gingrich is merely a regional candidate with no ability to win outside the South. This has been the central Santorum argument against Gingrich in recent weeks, as the Santorum campaign has urged the former congressman from Georgia to leave the race so that conservatives can rally around a single candidate.

Santorum expressed hope Thursday that he might be able to knock Gingrich out of the race within a week.

“If we can finish first or second” in all three primary contests in the next week, Santorum told reporters during a stop in Alabama, that would “hopefully get the race down to two candidates.”

Santorum has managed to become the candidate of choice among the most conservative evangelical voters, and he has adopted the language of Protestant churchgoers in a way that belies his deeply felt Catholic faith. He topped the list of Republicans in a Christian Post article titled “Catholic Politicians You Thought Were Evangelical.”

The former senator from Pennsylvania opened his turn southward with a major address on Israel, making the decision to leave the campaign trail in Ohio to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a key pro-Israel lobbying group favored by evangelicals.

Santorum held three events Thursday in Alabama, where polls show him with a narrow lead over his rivals.

Santorum’s Alabama swing came as a super PAC supporting him, the Red, White and Blue Fund, announced that it was making an ad buy of $500,000 to $600,000 in Alabama and Mississippi before Tuesday’s primaries.

While Santorum won in Tennessee, a win in the Deep South has eluded him, and the upcoming contests will test his ability to connect in a region where he has no history and no obvious political base.

A statewide telephone poll by Alabama State University’s Center for Leadership and Public Policy showed Santorum with an edge over Romney, with Gingrich coming in third.

Romney said Thursday that he has become an “unofficial Southerner. I’m learning to say ‘y’all,’ and I like grits.” But he conceded that he was in for a tough slog next week. “I realize it is a bit of an away game,” Romney said. “I’m confident we’re going to get some delegates. That, of course, is what this is all about.”

Romney scooped up the endorsement of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, but big-name support has gone only so far for Romney in the South. In South Carolina, he campaigned with Gov. Nikki Haley and still lost. His strategy of getting to the right of his opponents on fiscal matters probably won’t be as effective this time, given the dominant role that social issues will play among Republicans who go to the polls on Tuesday.

“There is no mystery about Republicans in Mississippi. They are socially conservative, and they want candidates to speak to their beliefs,” said Marvin King, an associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. “Even though the unemployment rate is pretty bad, and you would think that Romney had a chance here to talk about his economic record, the reality is that that’s not what drives Republicans here, and Romney doesn’t want to have to answer any questions about his past in Massachusetts down here.”

Last fall, Mississippi was on the forefront of the “personhood” movement to grant legal rights to fetuses, and Alabama has one of the country’s toughest immigration stances. Eyeing the general election, Romney must thread the needle on such issues, and he is likely to continue ceding that ground to Gingrich and Santorum, not wanting to aid Democratic attempts to paint him as extreme. And this would be the place to do it.

Still, the likely Republican nominee will need the South, which remains a critical building block for any winning GOP coalition in the fall.

“He will need that energy and that money,” King said. “He has the fat-cat donors, but he doesn’t have a lot of small-dollar donors, and that’s all we’ve got in Mississippi.”

Staff writers David A. Fahrenthold, Felicia Sonmez and Krissah Thompson contributed to this report.

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