In the hours before voting is set to start in Alabama and Mississippi, one can almost feel the tension. Many believe the primaries in these two Southern states is the ultimate test for Newt Gingrich. In fact, this could be seen as a serious test for any of the three leading contenders. Rick Santorum would break new ground by winning in the South, perhaps consolidating his position as the anti-Romney. Meanwhile, Mitt hopes to break new ground, because he’s had significant trouble in the South to date. Meanwhile, the viability of Newt Gingrich’s candidacy is on the line in these two Southern states. If he were to lose in both, it could be said that he is all but finished. If he wins in one, but not the other, it will depend on who the winner is in order to sort out the meaning. If it’s Santorum, it slams the door in Romney’s face. If it’s Romney, it signals he’s picking up steam. This is going down to the wire, and Alabama and Mississippi may turn out to be the battleground around which this entire primary season turns.
I expect Mississippi to be the real point of contention, because Romney has support there in the form of Governor Haley Barbour. Barbour served as Chairman of the RNC back when Newt was Speaker of the House, for context, so these two are well acquainted with one another, but Barbour has sided with Romney throughout the primary season. Barbour recently ran afoul of Mississippians by pardoning some convicted murderers, and this didn’t sit well with many victims’ groups, and indeed families of the victims. In the end, the State’s high court upheld the pardons after they were challenged, but sometimes, it’s not about whether a thing may be done, but whether it should be done.
Newt is leading in Mississippi in the polls, although only by the slimmest of margins. Santorum is talking down expectations, apparently because polls show him shading toward third in both states. Still, it looks like a virtual three-way tie, with all three men within the margin of error. This will offer another nail-biter, particularly for the Gingrich camp that must get every voter they can to the polls, needing two wins more desperately than either of the other two. If Gingrich does prevail in both states, this will change the character of the race somewhat. Seeing a Gingrich ascendancy from what has been thought to be a doomed candidacy at least three times would be quite a feat, and it would speak to the resiliency of Gingrich as a campaigner.
These will be tight contests, and you can imagine that whomever prevails, it’s going to generate some sort of change in the race. If Romney wins in either, it will be seen as a breakthrough for him, and if Newt loses both, it will be seen as the end. If Gingrich can win one, he will be seen as still in but still the man on the bubble. Santorum is the only one of the three who doesn’t get a terrible beating if he loses in both states. I’ve made no secret of the fact that among these three, I’d pick Newt, and Rick, in that order. That’s based on my view of who is more able to articulate conservatism, and who is better able to make the kind of dramatic changes we need in the way things are done in Washington.
I’ll say this much: If Gingrich does manage to pull off wins in both states Tuesday, he will be seen as having gained momentum in the South, and if he can sustain it through the end of May, Texas will be a big prize that will move within reach. If Santorum can pick up either state, he can legitimately claim a breakthrough in the South, but the same is true for Mitt Romney. This is a real three-way race and that’s going to make the outcome all the more exciting in terms of the ‘horse-race’ aspects. It’s Newt’s best chance to recapture the momentum, and if he does, this race will move from “all but over” to “it ain’t over yet.”