Winner

03.13.12

Rick Santorum Whistling Dixie With Projected Wins in Alabama and Mississippi Primaries

A big night for the former senator, with projected wins in Alabama and Mississippi, and a big setback for Newt. Howard Kurtz on how the outcome shakes up the GOP race.

Rick Santorum extended his David-vs.-Goliath run in the Republican primaries on Tuesday night, rolling to projected victories in tight-as-a-tick contests in Alabama and Mississippi.

While Mitt Romney performed respectably on turf that was culturally foreign to him, the apparent failure to win is a huge setback for southerner Newt Gingrich, who will undoubtedly face louder calls to abandon the race and allow Santorum a clear shot at stopping the front-runner.

It’s a breakthrough moment for Santorum.  The former senator with the ragtag operation has been the streaky candidate who falls just short of winning the big ones. He took Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota but failed to upend Romney in Michigan. He won Oklahoma, Tennessee, North Dakota and Kansas but missed in Ohio. The two southern primaries were a chance for him to prove himself a surging national candidate–and, in unmistakable fashion, he did.

The outcome Tuesday further strengthens Santorum’s rationale that he is the only viable alternative to Romney

The outcome Tuesday further strengthens Santorum’s rationale that he is the only viable alternative to Romney, especially since he has been badly outspent by the Mitt machine in every matchup.

Video screenshot

Watch Rick Santorum's Victory Speech

Santorum’s detours into such culture-war issues as contraception and JFK’s church-state speech, which may have hurt him in the Midwest, probably had more resonance in the heavily evangelical electorate of the Deep South. As if to underscore the point, Santorum told an enthusiastic crowd in Louisiana that he had vanquished “the establishment,” in part by championing “the integrity of family and the centrality of faith in our lives.”

The Romney camp tried to minimize Santorum’s showing. “I don’t think anybody expected Mitt Romney to win Alabama or Mississippi…This was an away game for him,” Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told CNN.

The expectations game changed for Romney when polls showed him competitive with Santorum and Gingrich on turf that was hardly expected to be favorable to a Northeastern guy who awkwardly proclaimed his love of cheesy grits. Indeed, the magnitude of his challenge was underscored when CNN exit polls showed that 81 percent of voters in Mississippi and 73 percent in Alabama described themselves as evangelicals.

What’s more, about four in 10 voters in both states described themselves as “very conservative,” and Romney, not surprisingly, trailed among this group.

And check out these figures from Public Policy Polling: In Alabama, 45 percent said Barack Obama is a Muslim, 41 percent weren’t sure, and only 14 percent said Christian. Sixty percent don’t believe in evolution. In Mississippi, 52 percent said Obama is a Muslim, and 66 percent don’t believe in evolution.

It isn’t that Romney was in danger of shattering the 30 percent ceiling he has hit in many other states. But with Santorum and Gingrich splitting the hard-core conservative vote, Romney, that was enough to make it a horse race.

As always, there was a two-tiered contest: One for the media and psychological boost that comes with winning the most votes, the other for the accumulation of delegates that will ultimately decide the nomination. On the latter front, Romney looked to have a strong night no matter the top-line outcome.

For Gingrich, the Dixie primaries loomed as a do-or-die test for a southerner who has faced a long drought except for his home state of Georgia. If he couldn’t win in Alabama and Mississippi, the argument went, where exactly could he win?

As for Santorum, he has been the streaky candidate who falls just short

The race has turned increasingly caustic and personal, with Santorum saying the other day that Romney “very desperate for a man who supposedly has it in the bag,” and saying of Gingrich: “It would be great if he could get out of the race.”