Mitt Romney isn’t supposed to win in the primaries in either Alabama or Mississippi on Tuesday. But he could.

And that makes it potentially his biggest opportunity of the presidential race so far.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves to the crowd at the Port of Pascagoula while campaigning in Mississippi on Thursday. (Amanda McCoy — AP Photo/The Sun Herald)

Romney’s path to the nomination has been littered with must-wins. Even when he has won a crucial contest, the burden of expectations — Michigan being his “home state” and Ohio being a must-win general election state — have tempered the victories. What’s more, the one unexpected victory he did have, in Iowa’s caucuses, was later taken from him and given to Rick Santorum.

In the Deep South, none of that applies.

When it comes to polling, Alabama and Mississippi might as well be the Wild West.

Three polls were released in Alabama late this week.

One poll, from Alabama State University, showed Santorum at 23 percent, Romney at 19, and Newt Gingrich at 14.

Another, from the Capital Survey Research Center, showed Romney at 30 percent, Gingrich at 25, and Santorum at 20.

And then Friday, Rasmussen Reports shows Gingrich at 30 percent, Santorum at 29, and Romney at 28.

So basically, nobody knows.

The difference now is that, given his poor performances in the South so far, Romney has set low expectations. He is not supposed to win there, and that’s not likely to change in the coming days, absent a number of polls that show him asserting a clear lead.

That’s why Romney — smartly — has labeled Tuesday’s contests an “away game” for him.

The polling is just jumbled enough to show him with both a shot at winning, but not to set the expectation that he will. And that’s a great position for him to be in.

“Romney is the underdog, but folks down here want to beat Obama, and that is Romney’s trump card against Gingrich and Santorum,” said Mississippi Republican National Committeeman Henry Barbour, a Romney supporter.

A Romney win in Alabama makes a little more sense, as the state is more urban than Mississippi is. Romney’s strength in the GOP race has been focused on more populated areas, and Alabama has four sizeable population centers in Birmingham, Montgomery, Huntsville and Mobile.

But Mississippi doesn’t appear to be out of the question either.

Two polls out Friday show Romney either in the lead or virtually tied. Rasmussen has him leading both Santorum and Gingrich by eight points, and American Research Group has him within the margin of error with Gingrich in front. (The second poll also has Santorum way back — a reflection of the fact that the polls are all over the place.)

“My sense is that while his campaign was somewhat late to the dance in Mississippi, Santorum has growing momentum with conservatives,” said longtime Mississippi political observer Sid Salter. “But it appears Romney will do far better here than predicted because of GOP establishment connections.”

The polling suggests Romney is, at the very least, within striking distance.

At the same time, the polling isn’t conclusive enough — and the terrain is bad enough — to the point where it’s still hard to call Romney a favorite or expect success.

With that in mind, we’ve still got him as the underdog in both states.

Below, we offer our best guess, based on the wacky data, at the likely order of finish in either state.

To the line!


4. Ron Paul: Paul’s appeal in the South — despite his Texas roots — is pretty limited. He hasn’t made any appearances in the Magnolia State and may not do so before Tuesday’s primary. That tells you about all you need to know about his chances of winning.

3. Gingrich: The ARG poll shows him with a slight lead, but it was within the margin of error, and we’re a little dubious that Santorum is really that far back. Gingrich is focused intently on victory on Tuesday, knowing that it might be his last chance to regain relevance to the process. He’s got a shot to continue his Southern winning streak here (arguably better than Alabama), but right now it looks more likely that Santorum gets the conservative vote.

2. Romney: The Rasmussen poll aside, it’s still hard for us to see Romney winning this state. If he does, he’s probably won Alabama too, which would likely end the race right then and there. Or, at least, it would end Gingrich’s campaign.

1. Santorum: Santorum would love to knock Gingrich out of the race by winning here. So we should expect an ugly few days of sniping between them. At the same time, Santorum can’t give Romney a pass and let him shoot the gap. Given Santorum’s Super Tuesday dominance with evangelicals everywhere (save Georgia), he has the edge despite Gingrich’s regional roots.


4. Paul: How irrelevant is Paul in Alabama? The most recent poll in the state didn’t even include him as an option. Nor is the candidate himself wasting any time in the state; his latest ad buy was in Hawaii, which is also holding its primary Tuesday. Like Mississippi, Alabama is not in Paul’s wheelhouse, and his impact here will be marginal at best.

3. Gingrich: Alabama neighbors Gingrich’s home state, Georgia, which he won by a huge margin on Super Tuesday. But besides some bleedover from the Atlanta media market into eastern Alabama, that probably doesn’t mean much on Tuesday. As in Mississippi, though, we are hardly counting him out; he’s got a legitimate chance to win here, despite being No. 3 on our list.

2. Romney: The pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future has now pumped more than $680,000 into this state — larger than its investment in neighboring Mississippi. Romney’s financial advantage will be more muted here than it has in previous contests, but if his campaign and super PAC can move some numbers, he will be well-positioned to pull the upset.

1. Santorum: The electorate in Alabama should look like the electorate of Tennessee — lots of social conservative voters — and that’s a very good thing for Santorum. Polling is all over the map in Alabama at the moment, but Santorum unquestionably built some momentum on Super Tuesday by winning Tennessee and Oklahoma. Santorum surely has the most to lost here, which is why he’s No. 1.

Chris Cillizza and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.