Will former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s much ballyhooed southern strategy lead to the victory he needs over his two chief rivals in Mississippi and Alabama today to once again catapult himself into the thick of the Republican presidential race? Or will a loss or two force him into an Appomattox-style surrender that will finally transform this into a two-man race between former governor Mitt Romney and former senator Rick Santorum?
All eyes will be on Gingrich, the white-mopped former Georgian lawmaker, Washington policy maven and historian who is trying to engineer his third comeback in the GOP presidential sweepstakes in less than a year. With his ample girth showing after trading in a suit coat for a sweater, Gingrich has been extolling the virtues of cheese grits, speaking approvingly of gun racks and offering himself up as a good ole boy who could clean President Obama’s clock in one-on-one debates this fall.
And in his desperate bid to regain a leading role in the protracted battle, Gingrich is claiming the mantle of the Reagan conservative legacy, even while one of the former president’s son is disputing that and others question how well he knew the storied president. He has dismissed Romney as a hollow politician and unscrupulous former businessman with no true conservative compass. As for Santorum, the darling of conservative Christians and Tea Party activists, Gingrich paints him as too junior and inexperienced to succeed Obama in the White House.
Twice before, Gingrich’s campaign appeared on the brink of extinction – first, last summer when many of his fed-up aides resigned in a huff, and then in late January, when he blew a chance to beat Romney in Florida with a pair of mediocre debates and other missteps. Now he is trying to engineer a comeback with solid performances throughout the South and Southwest.
Romney Marches Ahead
Short of a complete meltdown, Romney is on track to accumulate the 1,144 delegates he will need to claim the GOP presidential nomination in Tampa in August. He is already 40 percent of the way there, with 454 delegates, and will benefit from the Republicans’ proportionate vote rules that will guarantee him delegates even in races where he finishes second or third. Santorum is second with 217 delegates, Gingrich third with 107 delegates and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with 47.
After a slow start, Santorum has demonstrated voter appeal throughout the country, and came within a hair of beating Romney in his home state of Michigan and in Ohio, the bellwether and delegate rich Rust-Belt state. Santorum’s only chance to catch up with Romney in the delegate hunt is if Gingrich steps aside and stops splitting the conservative vote.
“Gingrich needs to win at least one of the states to justify going forward,” University of Virginia political expert Larry Sabato told The Fiscal Times. “Many of his own supporters say the same thing. Romney and Santorum move forward regardless of the Tuesday outcome. Santorum would love to see Gingrich eliminated so he could finally have a clean shot at consolidating conservatives.”
Gingrich clobbered Romney and Santorum in South Carolina and Georgia – his only two wins this year -- and he can keep his campaign afloat with the financial backing of billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, provided Gingrich can argue plausibly that he has a strategy for overtaking Romney. But while Romney has called today’s two contests “a bit of an away game” for him, the former Massachusetts governor appears to be locked in a virtual tie with Gingrich in the two primaries.
In a poll of likely voters in Mississippi's Republican primary conducted Friday through Sunday, Romney narrowly led Gingrich, 34 percent to 32 percent, which was within the poll's sampling margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Meanwhile, a poll of likely voters in Alabama's primary conducted Friday through Sunday showed Gingrich holding a three percentage point lead there – 34 percent to 31 percent – which again was within the poll’s sampling error.
Despite assertions by his staff that Alabama and Mississippi are both “must-wins,” Gingrich is now saying that he won’t quit the presidential race even if he loses both races today. “I just want to set this to rest once and for all -- we’re going to Tampa,” he declared recently.
Meanwhile, Santorum trailed in both polls -- 10 points behind Gingrich in Alabama and 12 points behind Romney in Mississippi. Santorum, with his strong emphasis on family and religious values and his western Pennsylvania blue collar roots, would seem a natural in these two highly conservative and relatively poor states. Four years ago, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee easily defeated Arizona Sen. John McCain and Romney in Alabama with his strong Evangelical Christian ties, but he was crushed in the Mississippi GOP primary by the more moderate McCain.
“I’m surprised Santorum is not doing better,” said Allan McBride, an associate professor and chairman of the political science department at the University of Southern Mississippi. “We’re a pretty moralistic people, and he’s the one who tapped that a little more than the others.”
He said that Gingrich, a native of Pennsylvania who led the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 and battled President Bill Clinton over the budget and welfare reform, is not exactly a perfect fit for southerners, who have qualms about his personal life and leadership qualities. “The southern connection probably helps him,” McBride said. “But the guy has been divorced a couple of times. He did have some success as Speaker of the House, but I’m not sure how many voters remember that clearly.”
As for Romney, his enormous wealth and “some of the comments that he has made – such as that he’s not worried about the plight of poor people who have a government safety net and that he’s good friends with NASCAR team owners– “don’t seem to have been very sympathetic to working people. But Mississippians don’t necessarily vote their pocket books, oddly enough, as poor as they are,” he added.
Romney told Alabama voters yesterday that Obama wrongly thinks the country is doing better because of recent job increases. The former governor and equity investment executive told a rain-soaked crowd in Mobile on Monday that Obama should talk to the millions of people who are unemployed or who have stopped looking for work. He appeared with Southern comic Jeff Foxworthy, who is popular for his redneck jokes and Blue Collar Comedy Tour.