Will Mississippi and Alabama primaries shake up the race? Don’t count on it.

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

Top takeaways from the Ohio exit polls

Exit polls were conducted in a number of Super Tuesday states, but we’re focusing on the Ohio results since it’s such a critical swing state - and one that Republicans almost certainly will need to win in the fall in order to take the White House. So what do the Ohio exit polls show about the candidates’ relative strengths and weaknesses? Read on for Decoder’s top takeaways…

  • No real gender gap: Much has been made about Rick Santorum’s “woman problem” stemming from his conservative positions on social issues like birth control. But in Ohio, Santorum didn’t do that badly with women overall, losing them to Romney by just three points. The one glaring weak spot for him was among single women, who broke for Romney by 17 points. But they only represented 12 percent of the electorate; by contrast, married women, who were 33 percent of the electorate, chose Santorum over Romney by 43 to 39 percent. 
  • But a striking age gap: This might be the most interesting result of the night. Young people broke for Santorum yesterday. He won voters in the 17-29 age cohort in Ohio overall, beating Romney by nine points - and even beating out perennial youth favorite Ron Paul. Santorum won the 30-44 age cohort by an even bigger margin, beating Romney by 11 points, and he even squeaked out a single-point win in the 45-64 age group. Romney’s real strength came from the over-65 crowd, where he clobbered Santorum by 16 points. 
  • And a big religious divide: Santorum won big among evangelical voters, beating Romney by 17 points. Strikingly, though, he once again lost the Catholic vote to Romney, this time by 13 points (which may still be fallout from his comment that John F. Kennedy’s historic speech about the separation of church and state made him want to “throw up”).
  • Romney voters dislike Santorum; Santorum voters dislike Romney: 61 percent of those who said they would be “dissatisfied” with Santorum as the nominee voted for Romney, while 61 percent of those who would be “dissatisfied” with a Romney nomination voted for Santorum.
  • Santorum’s got stronger “average Joe” appeal: He beat Romney on who “best understands the problems of average Americans” by 12 points.
  • But the income divide among the poorest voters isn’t as big as you’d think: Among voters making less than $50K a year, Santorum only won by 3 points. Where Santorum cleaned up was among voters making $50-99K a year, beating Romney by 11 points. Romney, on the other hand, continued to post strong numbers among voters making more than $100K a year, winning that group by 14 points.
  • The last-minute focus on Romneycare may have given Santorum a boost: Voters who decided “in the last few days” went for Romney by five points, but those who decided on Election Day itself went for Santorum by 13 points. We wonder if there may have also been something of a Rush Limbaugh backlash at work here. 

— Liz Marlantes

"It’s one thing to defend a mandated top-down government-run healthcare program that you imposed on the people of your state. It’s another thing to recommend and encourage the president of the United States to impose the same thing on the American people. And it’s another thing yet to go out and tell the American public that you didn’t do it. We need a person running against President Obama that is right on the issues and truthful with the American public."
— Rick Santorum, attacking Mitt Romney in his victory speech after winning Tennessee and Oklahoma. By most accounts, Santorum outperformed expectations tonight, and the issue of Romney’s onetime support for the individual mandate - new evidence of which emerged late last week - may be the reason why.

If Mitt Romney wins big today, he may have Rush Limbaugh to thank

If Mitt Romney wins big today - and the polling going into most Super Tuesday contests suggests the momentum is on Romney’s side - he may have one person to thank: Rush Limbaugh.

The controversy surrounding Limbaugh’s crude remarks about Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke has dominated political headlines since late last week. It has almost certainly not been helpful to Romney’s main challenger, Rick Santorum, whose personal views on birth control - which he has called harmful to women and society - would seem to put him on Limbaugh’s side of the argument (though Santorum publicly called Limbaugh’s attack on Fluke “absurd”).

But perhaps more important, the brouhaha overshadowed a new vulnerability for Romney that has emerged in recent days and that might otherwise have proved damaging: New evidence that Romney not only approved of the individual mandate in his healthcare law but wanted the federal government to follow suit - and only later tried to make it seem like he didn’t.

Last Friday, Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski dug up a 2009 op-ed by Mitt Romney in which the former Massachusetts governor clearly seemed to argue in favor of putting an individual mandate in the federal healthcare law. 

In it, Romney wrote that “the lessons we learned in Massachusetts could help Washington.” Among those lessons:

"First, we established incentives for those who were uninsured to buy insurance. Using tax penalties, as we did, or tax credits, as others have proposed, encourages ‘free riders’ to take responsibility for themselves rather than pass their medical costs on to others. This doesn’t cost the government a single dollar."

A number of news outlets seized on the op-ed as evidence that Romney was not only originally on the same side as President Obama on the one issue that has arguably most inflamed the GOP’s conservative base - but had also been lying about his earlier position with impunity, as he later repeatedly claimed on the trail that he never thought the Massachusetts model should be implemented on a national scale. New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote:

"Romney is now on the verge of escaping with the party nomination having embraced a program his party considers inimical to freedom itself and blatantly lied about having done so without any major opponents pointing this out. It’s pretty incredible."

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” conservative host Joe Scarborough called Romney a “liar” repeatedly, asking:

"What does it say about a candidate, though, who wrote an op-ed in 2009 saying that, please apply what we did in Massachusetts nationally on an individual mandate, and then goes on the campaign trail yesterday and just lies?"

Not surprisingly, the Santorum campaign has been trying hard to make this a bigger story. Yesterday, the campaign held a conference call with reporters in which Santorum called Romney “an advocate for the individual mandate … not just for Massachusetts but for the federal government.”

The issue could have been particularly potent for Santorum in Ohio - where voters last year rejected the individual mandate by two-to-one on a largely symbolic ballot question.

But, thanks to Limbaugh sucking up all the oxygen, the amount of media attention paid to this story was almost certainly been less than it otherwise would have been.

— Liz Marlantes

Rick Santorum’s Virginia mistake may prove critical

Professor Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia, makes a key point in his latest Crystal Ball newsletter: Rick Santorum really, really blew it by not making the ballot in Virginia.

On Super Tuesday, 10 states will vote - of which, Virginia holds the fourth most delegates (49), after Georgia (76), Ohio (66), and Tennessee (58). Neither Santorum nor Newt Gingrich managed to get on the ballot in Virginia, a state that would not necessarily have been a great fit for Mitt Romney but which Romney will now effectively win by default. 

The upshot? Santorum will likely have a very hard time beating Romney in the overall delegate count on Super Tuesday. And Virginia could wind up making the entire difference.

Indeed, Sabato projects that Romney will finish Super Tuesday with 49 more delegates than Santorum - the exact number of delegates awarded in Virginia. Looking at the landscape as it currently stands, Romney will do well in Massachusetts and Vermont; Gingrich will do well in Georgia; Santorum will do well in Tennessee and Oklahoma; and Ohio is likely to be close (though Sabato expects Romney to narrowly prevail there). Alaska, North Dakota, and Idaho are caucus states where Ron Paul is putting most of his efforts (though Romney could also do well in Idaho, with its large Mormon population). That means, in the end, Romney’s haul from Virginia may put him over the top. As Sabato writes:

"Our guesstimate of Romney’s delegate edge — 49 over Santorum — comes almost entirely from Virginia. Subtract out Virginia, and Super Tuesday becomes essentially a draw." 

For Santorum, that’s a huge - perhaps fatal - missed opportunity.

Top five takeaways from the Michigan exit polls

The exit polls from Michigan may or may not have been skewed somewhat by mischief-making Democrats who turned out to vote for Rick Santorum. But even allowing for some irregularities, they offer a useful snapshot of the GOP candidates’ relative strengths. Here are Decoder’s top five takeaways:

  • Ground game matters: Michigan voters who decided “in the last few days” voted for Santorum over Romney, by a notable margin of 18 percent. But voters who said they decided on Election Day went for Romney, by 7 percent. The Romney campaign clearly outperformed Santorum in getting its voters to the polls.
  • Santorum really, really wishes he hadn’t said that the historic speech about separation of church and state given by John F. Kennedy - the nation’s first Catholic president - made him want to “throw up”: Catholic voters - representing nearly a third of the electorate - backed Romney, a Mormon, over Santorum, a devout Catholic, 44 to 37 percent.
  • And Santorum might be rethinking his decision to call President Obama a “snob” for wanting everyone to attend college: Voters who never attended college did break for Santorum, by a margin of 8 points. But they represented just 18 percent of the electorate. The 82 percent who attended college (including those without degrees) went for Romney over Santorum, 42 to 37 percent.
  • Romney still does better with higher-income voters, but is closing the gap somewhat: He beat Santorum among voters earning $100K a year or more by 14 points; he lost those earning $50-100K by just 3 points, and lost those earning less than $50K by 5 points.
  • And Romney still does much better with older voters: He won voters over 50 - and did especially well with the over-65 set, who went for Romney over Santorum by 49 to 33 percent. Santorum won voters between the ages of 30 and 50, while Ron Paul once again won among the 18 to 29 set.

— Liz Marlantes

Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum hit by new Obama Michigan ad

Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich have one thing in common, President Obama’s campaign would like you to know - they didn’t want the federal government to bail out the American auto industry.

The Obama campaign is hitting the GOP field - and Romney in particular - with an advertisement arguing that “when a million American jobs were on the line, every Republican candidate turned their back” before flashing Romney’s now-infamously headlined op-ed “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

UPDATED: The Republican National Committee is having none of Obama’s auto bailout talk, dropping this stack of fact checking news articles on why bailout claims are not to be believed.

The Michigan GOP primary is five days away and Democrats are getting into the mix in more than just the Obama for America ad spot: Democratic party officials have encouraged their members to vote in the GOP’s primary, even.

But whatever mischief Democrats would do at the ballot box, the advertisement is  more interesting. The auto bailout is something on which Michigan voters, according to the most recent polling, give Obama a great deal of credit: 63 percent of registered voters and 42 percent of likely voters support the bailout while 58 percent of voters say Obama deserves a good or great deal of credit for the strength of the auto industry versus 37 percent who say he deserves little or none.

The bottom line: This is a good issue, the polls say, for Obama in Michigan.

While that same poll shows Obama handily defeating both Romney and Santorum in Michigan, it’s not just Michigan where such an ad could make waves.

As anyone who has driven from Cleveland to Detroit along I-80 knows the prominence of the auto industry in northwest Ohio as well. Ohio, it goes almost without saying, is another important battleground state.

Team Obama smells blood in the water on the auto bailout, it seems, and they are going to get their message into the mix early and often along what might be called the Auto Belt.

As with many things breaking news, your faithful Decoder found this nugget through the Twitter feed of Obama for America deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter.

— David Grant / @DW_Grant

Lent: What should each of the presidential contenders give up for Lent?

Lent, the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, has arrived for Christians across the world. Tonight, four of those Christians (of different stripes) - Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich - are going to take to a debate stage in Arizona in the 20th contest of this election cycle.

Which got Decoder to thinking: Following the practice of “giving something up for Lent” - soda, smoking, swearing, you get the picture - what could each presidential contender stand to lose for the next 40 days?

Barack Obama: Swagger. Obama looks like he’s got plenty of swagger back. He’s playing basketball on the weekends and singing with B.B. King - and just singing Al Green - as his poll numbers move in a positive direction. But a rising stock market and falling unemployment aren’t permanent conditions and Obama would be wise to mind the swag in the good times lest leaner ones be between him and November. 

Mitt Romney: Singing. It’s not like Obama has cornered the market on being the melodious candidate - far from it, in fact. But the “America the Beautiful" bit in Romney’s act? It could take a month off to see if his admirers start clamoring for it again.

Rick Santorum: The sweater vest. What better way to signal his new status at the top of national polls than by vowing to eschew his signature vestment - “sweater vest? I don’t need no stinkin’ sweater vest.”

Newt Gingrich: Grandiosity. News that Newt is planning to buy 30 minute ad slots in Super Tuesday states reminds us that Newt, the man who talked about moon colonies in the Florida debates, is back on his grandiose grind.

Yes, you read that right. Not 30 seconds. Thirty minutes. What about a more concise Newt who would give voters a coffee break’s worth - say, five minutes? - of his views on energy and the environment.

Ron Paul: Gold. No matter its value as an earthly treasure (especially, in Paul’s mind, versus paper money), Dr. Paul could stop talking about the stuff to focus on more heavenly treasures.

Gary Johnson, libertarian candidate for president: Let’s be real, Gary - there’s no medical license for that stuff in New Mexico. So lay off.

Buddy Roemer, gadfly and anti-money-in-politics candidate: Twitter. The guy is viciously funny in the Twitterverse and tweets up a storm - a perfectly good habit to kick in the vein of self-denial and sacrifice.

— David Grant / @DW_Grant

Watch the top Republican candidates face off in the CNN Republican Presidential debate live from Arizona! Wednesday night at 8ET on CNN (Sponsored message).

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum prays during a campaign stop at the Maricopa County Lincoln Day Luncheon, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Will Super PAC cash dilute Santorum’s populist image?

One point being made repeatedly in the media of late is that Super PACs are changing the usual dynamics of the presidential nominating process by allowing underdog candidates to remain in the race. Without Sheldon Adelson’s millions, Newt Gingrich might well have been forced off the stage by now for lack of funds. The same is often said about Rick Santorum, on whose behalf the Red, White, and Blue Fund has spent more than $3 million so far. Santorum is set to speak at a fundraiser for the Super PAC this Thursday in Dallas.

But Paul Goldman and Mark Rozell argue in an interesting op-ed in USA Today that in Santorum’s case, the Super PAC could eventually wind up doing more harm than good. Specifically, they say that by embracing Super PAC support, Santorum is blowing a big opportunity to carve out a pure - and unique - populist identity for himself in this race:

By giving up the high ground easily attainable by going the other way — telling the Santorum Super PAC to cease and desist while calling on opponents to put the little people, not the big donors, first — the former senator dives all in to the wrong pool…. By legitimizing the growing role of hordes of mystery cash raised from the biggest special interests, Santorum gives away his best potential asset.”

Moreover, they add: 

"Whatever legitimate criticisms there might be of Sarah Palin as the mouth that roared, the former Alaska governor is the one Republican leader who gets it. The best chance the GOP has this year to defeat Obama is to nominate someone willing to “go rogue” against the GOP establishment as a prelude to challenging the Washington Establishment. You can’t take their money and then have any credibility as a reformer. And it will take a major populist reformer, not a conventional politician, to defeat the president.”

Decoder agrees that Santorum’s fighting-for-the-little-guy image is absolutely his best weapon in this campaign - both against Mitt Romney and, should he somehow win the nomination, against President Obama. And accepting money from a Super PAC largely funded by one wealthy (and now, thanks to last week’s comments about birth control, controversial) mutual-fund magnate certainly dilutes Santorum’s “purity” in claiming to represent the little guy against entrenched elites.

Still, it’s hard to say whether Santorum would even be in this race at all without Super PAC money. And while, on the one hand, the travails of the Romney campaign have delineated the limits of what big money can buy, the reach of said money has also been on breathtaking display. As The New York Times reports, the Super PAC supporting Romney raised $6.6 million in January and spent close to $14 million, much of it on TV ads attacking Gingrich in Iowa and Florida. 

Santorum’s best shot at mortally wounding Romney is coming up in Michigan, which votes one week from today - and where, Politico reports, the pro-Santorum Red, White, and Blue Fund spent nearly $700,000 last week, and is about to book fresh airtime today. That makes the Super PAC essentially the sole factor keeping the airwaves competitive for Santorum there.

Santorum clearly decided (like Obama, and every other candidate) that he could better afford to take a hit on the issue of Super PAC money than to turn down the money itself. We’ll see if it was worth it.

— Liz Marlantes

Watch the top Republican candidates face off in the CNN Republican Presidential debate live from Arizona! Wednesday night at 8ET on CNN (Sponsored message).

Foster Friess on Andrea Mitchell: Is today the zaniest day in sexual politics ever?

UPDATED: Friess, on his website, apologized for his comments:

Today on Andrea Mitchell’s show, my aspirin joke bombed as many didn’t recognize it as a joke but thought it was my prescription for today’s birth control practices. In fact, the only positive comments I got were from folks who remembered it from 50 years back. Birth control pills weren’t yet available, so everyone laughed at the silliness on how an aspirin could become a birth control pill.

Foster Friess, the billionaire pumping plenty of cash into Rick Santorum’s Super PAC, went on Andrea Mitchell’s MSNBC show this afternoon and had the following exchange, which you can watch above. (Decoder originally saw this at BuzzFeed.)

"I get such a chuckle when these things come out. Here we have millions of our fellow Americans unemployed, we have jihadist camps being set up in Latin America, which Rick has been warning about, and people seem to be so preoccupied with sex. I think that says something about our culture. We maybe need a massive therapy session so we can concentrate on what the real issues are. And this contraceptive thing, my gosh, it’s such inexpensive. Back in my days, they used Bayer Aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.”

Followed by two beats of silence, Mitchell’s response says it all: “Um, Mr. Friess, I’m trying to catch my breath from that, frankly. Let’s change the subject.”

But Friess’ frankly weird remark just capped off a truly weird day in sexual politics in the nation’s capital. First, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was zinging one liners all over the place. Huffington Post reports thus:

"I think it’s really curiouser and curiouser that as we get further into this debate, the Republican leadership of this Congress thinks it’s appropriate to have a hearing on the subject of women’s health and can purposely exclude women from the panel," Pelosi said during a press conference. "What else do you need to know about the subject?"

"If you need to know more, tune in, I may, I may at some point be moved to explain biology to my colleagues."

What panel was Pelosi speaking of? Well, the House Oversight Commitee held a hearing Thursday entitled “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” that had the following panelists during its first session:

The Most Reverend William E. Lori
Roman Catholic Bishop of Bridgeport, CT
Chairman Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
TnT Form
 
The Reverend Dr. Matthew C. Harrison
President
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod
  
C. Ben Mitchell, Ph.D.
Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy
Union University
  
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik
Director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought
Yeshiva University
Associate Rabbi
Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun
 
Craig Mitchell, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Ethics
Chair of the Ethics Department
Associate Director of the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

As you can see, there are no women on that panel. In protest, then, three Democratic members of the committee - Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.), Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D.C.) and Mike Quigley (Ill.) - walked out in protest.

"What I want to know is, where are the women?" Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked Issa before walking out of the hearing after the first panel. “I look at this panel, and I don’t see one single individual representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventative health care services, including family planning. Where are the women?”

(There were two women scheduled for part II of the panel - administrators from Oklahoma Christian University and Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts college in Michigan).

Friess, a mega donor to Santorum’s Red, White and Blue PAC, hasn’t offered any further perspective on his earlier comments. We’ll keep you posted.

— David Grant / @DW_Grant

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