Tomorrow’s contests in Mississippi and Alabama could have a big impact on the GOP race if either Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum wins convincingly. If Romney has a strong showing in one or both states, it could put the nail in the coffin for his opponents, by showing the conservative base is at last coalescing around his candidacy. On the other hand, if Santorum wins handily, it would serve as perhaps the sharpest signal yet about the depth of resistance to Romney’s candidacy - and suggest that conservatives are digging in their heels.
Of course, right now neither scenario seems likely. Based on the polling available in those two states - which has been pretty all over the map - the most likely outcome seems like a virtual three-way tie. And the candidate best poised to squeak out wins might actually be Newt Gingrich.
Although Gingrich has been trying to dampen expectations somewhat, suggesting he will do well but not promising any wins, some polling has shown the former House Speaker gaining ground in recent days. This may be a reflection of the “$2.50 gas” message Gingrich has been driving, hammering his plan (which critics have called unrealistic) to lower the price of gas to $2.50 a gallon, at a time when consumers are feeling increasingly pinched at the pump.
More likely, though, Gingrich’s gain is coming mostly at Santorum’s expense (in one set of polls by Alabama State University, Santorum lost six points in a week, while Gingrich gained seven). That’s not all that surprising given that Santorum has once again come under withering attack from the Romney Super PAC, which has spent somewhere between $2 and 3 million attacking Santorum in both states.
And if Gingrich is the victor tomorrow, it won’t do much to change the overall dynamics of the race. Santorum would take a bit of a hit - since those states present one of the best opportunities for him to pick up delegates and momentum on the calendar going forward. But he could also continue to argue that it’s Gingrich’s presence in the race that’s preventing conservatives from coalescing around his own candidacy.
In Romney’s case, while he’d obviously love to take one or both states himself, the more critical priority is denying Santorum the wins. Losing two more Southern states would perpetuate talk about Romney’s troubles with the base, but losing them to Gingrich rather than Santorum would allow Romney to argue there’s still no viable alternative to his candidacy. The Groundhog Day campaign seems likely to continue.
— Liz Marlantes