Republicans look for new momentum in the South
The race to collect enough delegates to capture the Republican nomination for president has been proceeding slowly as the candidates trade wins ahead of the national convention in Tampa in August, but the candidates are looking to this week's Southern primaries to kickstart the process.
Three states vote on Tuesday: Alabama, Mississippi and Hawaii. In a race where GOP voters have so far been ambivalent about the candidates, the two Southern contests give the nominees an opportunity to claim the support of a conservative base that will be key for any nominee to garner enthusiasm for his candidacy.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose two primary victories so far have come in South Carolina and his home state of Georgia, is seeking to lock up the Deep South and carry that key region to the Tampa convention in August.
For former Sen. Rick Santorum, victory in the South on Tuesday could help solidify his standing as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, who currently leads in the delegate count. The former Massachusetts governor, meanwhile, needs to win in solid red states like Alabama and Mississippi to prove he can win over stalwart conservatives.
Recent polls out of Alabama and Mississippi suggest the top three candidates are in a tight race in both states while Rep. Ron Paul trails in fourth place. The most recent polling, from American Research Group, shows Romney and Gingrich statistically tied in both states. In Mississippi, Romney leads with 34 percent, followed by Gingrich with 32 percent and Santorum with 22 percent. In Alabama, Gingrich leads with 34 percent, while Romney takes 31 percent and Santorum 24 percent. Both polls, conducted over the weekend, have a margin of error of four points.
Romney today made one campaign stop in Mobile, Alabama with comedian Jeff Foxworthy, where he told voters he's about "two and a half times" ahead in the delegate race but that a good night in Alabama could help him lock up the nomination "at a very fast pace."
Romney acknowledged on a Birmingham radio show Thursday that Alabama is an "away game" for him, but for a once-moderate governor from the northeast, Romney is performing better than some might have expected in the Southern states. He's gotten a boost from the endorsements of the Mississippi governor and a number of other local lawmakers.
Romney clearly has the best chance to win the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the Republican nomination in Tampa. As CBS News political director John Dickerson notes, the other candidates practically have no chance, in part because only four of the remaining contests are winner-take-all. The rest of the states divide their delegates proportionally.
Still, the fight isn't over. On NBC's "Today Show" Monday, Santorum suggested he could keep Romney from winning 1,144 and then beat the former governor in a brokered convention.
"We're going to see very shortly that the conservative in this race is going to rise... If we go to the convention, this is a conservative party," he said. "The issue is not math, the issue is vision."
Santorum similarly said in Tupelo, Mississippi on Sunday, "The establishment is trying to force a moderate Republican from Massachusetts down the throats of the American people, and if we have to go to a convention, we'll win at a convention. I have no doubt about that."
Santorum has five appearances in Mississippi and Alabama slated for Monday. Both Santorum and Gingrich are speaking at the Gulf Coast Energy Summit in Biloxi, Mississippi on Monday -- a prime venue for Gingrich, who has focused his campaign message in recent weeks on bringing down oil prices. Polling shows the issue is a potent one, particularly in the South.
Speaking to a crowd of several hundred in Brandon, Mississippi on Sunday, Gingrich said he was in the race all the way to Tampa for a practical reason: Because the "non-millionaire, non-Wall Street, non establishment wing of the Republican Party deserves to have somebody who is a Reagan protege who thinks in terms of vision."
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