Mitt Romney has an outside shot at winning Alabama or Mississippi as the votes are being counted Tuesday night in a pair of primaries where he was initially thought to be a longshot.
Even if Romney falls short, he could get some bragging rights if he finishes a point or two behind Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich in what has been described as an “away game” for him. With the count proceeding at a molasses rate, none of the networks were able to make projections in the tight three-way contests.
Expectations 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 was able 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 looks 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 of winning the big ones. He takes Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota and fails to upend Romney in Michigan. He wins Oklahoma, Tennessee, North Dakota, and Kansas but misses in Ohio. The two southern primaries were a chance for him to prove himself a surging national candidate–and maybe send Newt to the showers.
The race has turned increasingly caustic and personal, with Santorum saying the other day that Romney seemed “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.”