Don't look now, but Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney might just find a way to win next Tuesday's Alabama primary - and in doing so help put to rest lingering concerns about his appeal to highly religious and highly conservative Southern Republican voters.
A telephone poll out Wednesday from Alabama State University's Center for Leadership and Public Policy showed Rick Santorum leading in the state with 23 percent support. But Romney came in at 19 percent - within the poll's five-point margin of error. Newt Gingrich was in third with 14 percent support, and 30 percent were undecided. (The survey did not ask voters if they support Ron Paul.)
The poll of 470 likely voters was taken over four days last week, ending on March 1; it does not reflect any possible boost Romney might have received from Super Tuesday, when Romney won six out of ten states. Thomas Vocino, the executive director of the Center for Leadership and Public Policy at Alabama State University, said it shows that Romney is "within striking distance."
"If he has momentum coming out of Super Tuesday and he can afford a large media buy he could possibly win the state," said Vocino. "He also has going that a former governor has endorsed him [Bob Riley] and he's gotten the endorsement of the largest newspaper in the state, the Birmingham News."
Romney may already be getting that momentum: A separate telephone survey of 592 likely voters from the Capital Survey Research Center, taken between Monday and Wednesday and thus partially after the Super Tuesday results came in, shows Romney in the lead in Alabama, with 30 percent support. He is followed by Gingrich at 25 percent, Santorum at 20 percent and Paul at 6 percent. Romney's lead is just outside the poll's four-point margin of error.
Romney's backers are clearly sensing an opportunity: Restore our Future, the well-funded Super PAC backing Romney, is now airing advertisements in Alabama, among them the attack ad "Values." A Republican consultant told CNN that the super PAC has bought more than $2 million in advertising time in Alabama and the other southern state holding a primary on Tuesday, Mississippi.
Appearing on WAPI radio in Birmingham on Thursday morning, Romney acknowledged that Alabama is an "away game" for him, but said he is "confident we're going to get some" of the state's 50 delegates, which are allocated proportionally.
Romney has held steady around 16-19 percent support in the Center for Leadership and Public Policy's surveys going back to February 2. Gingrich, meanwhile, has seen his support cut in half since the Feb. 2 poll, when he was at 27 percent. Santorum has gone the other way, rising from 9 percent then to 23 percent today.
According to Vocino, Santorum and Gingrich are taking votes from the same pool of voters, underlying the Santorum camp's argument that if Gingrich were to leave the race Santorum would take much of his support and be a stronger candidate against Romney.
"I am convinced that the level of support that Santorum is receiving is at Gingrich's expense," said Vocino.
A win in Alabama would offer Romney the basis to argue that he can win in the South, and potentially further an inevitability argument that would help him wrap up the nomination sooner than he would otherwise.
Romney, Santorum and Gingrich are campaigning in Alabama and Mississippi this week. The former House speaker, who won only his home state of Georgia on Tuesday, badly needs another victory that would help justify his continued presence in the race. Gingrich's campaign is describing the southern contests as must win, and he is likely to face renewed pressure to leave the race barring an unexpectedly strong showing next Tuesday.
In the 2008 Alabama Republican primary, 68 percent of voters were white evangelicals - a group that broke for Santorum and Gingrich in Tuesday's Southern primaries. Mike Huckabee won the state by four points over John McCain in the 2008 primary, which took place on Super Tuesday.